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If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
If you have obesity, you are definitely not alone. In fact, you’re in the company of nearly half of all U.S. adults.
But how many people die from obesity? How dangerous is it, and what can you do about it?
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What is obesity?
Obesity has become a growing public health problem both in the U.S. and worldwide. According to the CDC and the 2017–2018 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), the prevalence of obesity is over 42% in American adults (Hales, 2020). Childhood obesity rates are also rising, with almost 1 in 5 children in the U.S. suffering from obesity (Sanyaolu, 2019).
But what is obesity? It is more than just carrying a few extra pounds. It is a chronic disease that can lead to worsening health problems. Obesity is based on a measurement called your body mass index or BMI. You can calculate your BMI using your weight and height and then determine which category below applies to you. The higher your BMI, the greater your risk of developing health problems compared to people in the normal weight category (Purnell, 2018):
How deadly is obesity?
In 2016, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were around 650 million people worldwide with obesity; given the current trends, that number will keep going up, as will the number of health problems this group of people may experience. Unfortunately, the number of deaths each year due to having overweight or obesity is at least 2.8 million people (WHO, 2020).
When looking at all causes of death, 7% are associated with having a higher BMI (Cohen, 2017). Obesity increases your all-cause mortality (or risk of death) in many disease categories, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, etc. (Bhaskaran, 2018).
But people with obesity are not just dying from being overweight. They are dying from medical conditions that are more severe due to their obesity. These conditions (also referred to as co-morbidities) include (PSC, 2009):
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure, diabetes
- Liver disease
- Certain cancers
- Lung problems
Because of this increased risk of worsening medical issues, having obesity may reduce your remaining life expectancy for several years. One study showed that a 40-year-old man with obesity could lose over four years from his remaining life expectancy. Women are also affected by obesity; a 40-year-old woman can expect a 3.5-year reduction in her life expectancy when compared to a person with a healthy weight (Bhaskaran, 2018).
This trend gets worse the higher your BMI. People with the most elevated BMIs, also called Class 3 or extreme obesity, have the highest estimates of years lost from their remaining life expectancy (Bhaskaran, 2018).
What are the health risks of obesity?
As you can see, obesity can lead to various medical problems, many of which are more likely to cause death in people with obesity compared to those with a healthy weight.
Type 2 diabetes
Not only do up to 90% of people with type 2 diabetes have obesity, but people with obesity are also almost 20 times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than people with normal BMIs (Kyrou, 2018). Clearly, diabetes and obesity are closely linked—so much so that some experts refer to diabetes from obesity as “diabesity” (Pappachan, 2017).
Diabetes increases your risk of developing heart attacks, strokes, kidney problems, and infections, all of which can be fatal if severe enough. Also, people with diabetes may develop diabetic ketoacidosis, a potentially life-threatening condition (Papatheodorou, 2018).
Fortunately, some studies show that losing just a modest amount of weight, as little as 5–10%, may lead to an improvement or even remission of your diabetes (Dhamba-Miller, 2020).
People with obesity have a higher chance of developing heart disease (also called cardiovascular disease or CVD). Cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death in U.S. adults, especially in people with obesity. This group tends to get heart disease earlier in life, spends more time living with CVD, and suffers premature death from CVD more often than people with a healthy BMI (Khan, 2018).
Having obesity raises your blood pressure, increases your cholesterol, and elevates blood glucose levels. This triad of medical problems increases your risk of developing heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes (Klop, 2013). Obesity also increases inflammatory and clotting factors, making blood clots more likely to develop, especially if you have atherosclerosis and heart disease. If these clots occur in the heart or brain, they can result in heart attacks and strokes, respectively. When severe enough, these conditions can be fatal (Kyrou, 2018).
High blood pressure
Your blood pressure can increase with obesity because of several different factors, including inflammation, oxidative damage, and hormonal changes. This elevated blood pressure, also called hypertension, raises your risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and strokes, as well as kidney problems and blood vessel issues (Cohen, 2017).
Cholesterol medication: types, benefits, and side effects
Many people with obesity develop liver problems like a “fatty liver” or hepatic steatosis. Too much fat builds up in your liver cells, preventing them from working properly. This can progress to scarring, liver failure, and even liver cancer or death. While this condition is most often associated with alcoholism, about 10–20% of people with obesity develop a condition called non-alcoholic fatty-liver disease or NAFLD. This is fatty liver disease found in someone who drinks little to no alcohol (Kyrou, 2018).
Having too much body fat increases your risk of developing certain cancers, including throat, stomach, colon, liver, gallbladder, pancreatic, breast, uterine, ovarian, kidney, and thyroid cancers. Also, if someone with obesity develops cancer, they have a higher chance of dying from that cancer than a person with a healthy weight (Kyrou, 2018).
Obesity affects the lungs in several ways. The increased body fat in your chest and abdomen makes it physically more difficult to breathe, and your lungs may struggle under the excess weight. You cannot breathe in as deeply, translating to less oxygen getting into your bloodstream with each breath. Over time, your lungs and surrounding muscles may start to weaken from all of the extra work they have to do (Kyrou, 2018).
A person with obesity is also more likely to develop lung problems like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Obesity plays a significant role in obstructive sleep apnea, as approximately 63% of people with obesity have OSA (Kline, 2021).
OSA is a condition where you stop and start breathing over and over again while sleeping. If you or your sleeping partner have loud snoring, gasping, or interruptions in breathing while sleeping, talk to your healthcare provider about getting tested for OSA. People with OSA may also have daytime sleepiness and morning headaches.
OSA is more than just a problem of getting a good night’s rest—it is a risk factor for developing heart disease, heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, lung problems, diabetes, and even car crashes from drowsiness (Kline, 2021).
Scientists have noticed a significant trend with regards to obesity and the global coronavirus pandemic. They found that having obesity increases your risk of developing severe COVID-19 disease and needing hospitalization with treatment in the intensive care unit (ICU). People with obesity are also more likely to die from COVID-19 than their healthy-weight counterparts. The reasons for this are unclear, but it is likely due to a combination of lung problems, inflammation, and other obesity-related conditions they may have (like diabetes, high blood pressure, etc.) (Popkin, 2020).
The 8 first steps to healthy weight loss: setting you up for success
What can you do about it?
The best way to improve your risk of health issues and premature death from obesity is to lose weight and improve your body mass index. Studies show that losing just 5–10% of your body weight can decrease your risk of developing many medical problems. Weight loss reduces high blood pressure, improves cholesterol, lowers blood sugar, decreases body fat in the abdomen and liver, and the list goes on (Magkos, 2016)
You don’t have to do it alone. Work with your healthcare provider to come up with a plan. Your provider can check if you are on any medicines or have any health conditions contributing to your weight gain. You may even be a candidate for weight-loss medications or surgical options.
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- Dambha-Miller, H., Day, A. J., Strelitz, J., Irving, G., & Griffin, S. J. (2020). Behaviour change, weight loss and remission of Type 2 diabetes: a community-based prospective cohort study. Diabetic Medicine: A Journal of the British Diabetic Association, 37(4), 681–688. doi:10.1111/dme.14122. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31479535/
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