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Obesity and Sedentary Death Syndrome: The Number One Killer, Pt 1

Being overweight may pose an even greater risk to your health than smoking, heavy drinking, or being poor, according to  research that compares obesity to other well-known health risks.  The study, which appears in an issue of the British journal Public Health, estimates that there are more Americans who are either overweight or obese than there are smokers, problem drinkers or those living below the poverty line.

“The overall health effect of obesity is much worse because the prevalence is much higher than other health problems, and the effects for people in that category are also stronger,” says study author Roland Sturm, an economist at RAND, a non-profit research institution. “It really points to this being an overwhelming public health problem, and I don't think it has had quite this profile yet.”

For the study, researchers surveyed a nationwide sample of 9,585 adults and questioned them about their height, weight, income, smoking and drinking habits and health status. They used the body mass index or BMI, a ratio of height to weight to define overweight and obesity. A BMI of 18-25 was considered normal, more than 25 was overweight and more than 30 was clinically obese.

Researchers found obesity was more closely associated with 17 major chronic conditions and 12 common quality-of-life issues than smoking, problem drinking or poverty — factors that have been widely acknowledged as health risk factors by both the public and health officials. For example, researchers found half of the people who are obese have an additional chronic condition. For smokers, that number is closer to one in four who have an additional chronic condition such as heart disease, cancer or diabetes.

Although researchers separated the risk factors in their study, Sturm notes that, “Bad health habits don't come in isolation.” Many people fall into more than one of the categories, such as being overweight and a smoker, which can make the ill effects even more severe.

Charles Billington, M.D., president of the North American Association for the Study of Obesity, says this study reinforces the fact that, “obesity is at least as much, if not possibly more, of a public health problem than some of the better recognized problems like smoking, problem drinking, poverty and the like.”

“Physicians, I think, would clearly side with public health officials that this is a medical problem that has medical consequences that we need to think about in those terms as a public health issue for the public and a disease that deserves attention and potentially treatment for individuals,” says Billington.

Dr. Frank W. Booth, a professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, says there are approximately 250,000 people in the United States who die of diseases due to inactivity. The figure is an estimate, based on estimates that 750,000 Americans a year die of heart disease, diabetes and colon cancer, and on research which concluded that one third of those deaths could be prevented by physical activity, Booth said.

In order to emphasize his point and have more attention paid to the problem, Dr. Booth has invented a new name for being fat and out of shape — sedentary death syndrome.

SeDS, short for sedentary death syndrome, replaces “inactivity-related diseases,” a phrase that Booth says lacked pizzazz. His hope is that with the new catchy name, the condition will get more attention from the public and federal government and that more money will be spent on getting the public to be active again.

Booth, along with 40 of his backers, officially unveiled SeDS to the public at a briefing for reporters in Washington. Researchers Against SeDS, the organization that Booth founded, and which he funds out of his own pocket, called for an increase in federal support for research. Booth wants to retain or increase current funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's physical activity and nutrition program. The new federal budget would cut funding, he said. And he said the government in general should double the current two percent of annual health care expenditures that is spent on prevention.

Booth also called for the National Institutes of Health to create more programs that would focus on SeDS research. Although the scientific consensus is strong that a lack of physical activity raises the risk of several fatal diseases, Booth conceded that his estimate of a quarter of a million fatalities is not as firm as it could be. “It’s such a big number and it’s so new,” so it will take some effort to make America give SeDS the respect it deserves, Booth said.

To help SeDS get that respect, Booth’s fledgling organization recruited Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, one of Washington’s larger advocacy groups, to speak at the briefing. “With all the environmental factors that reduce physical activity, it takes more than willpower to be physically active,” Wootan said. Government agencies should take some of the ease out of modern living, so physical activity improves as an option, she said.

“Our bodies were designed to be physically active,” said Scott Gordon of East Carolina University. The trouble is that hard work, from farming to simply doing household chores without appliances, is no longer part of ordinary life for most people, he said. Gordon called for activity to be put back in. “In adults, this may mean planning exercise into your daily routine,” he said. “However, it may be as simple as taking the stairs instead of the elevator a couple of times a day.”

“Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that ailments previously associated with the middle-aged and older population now affect our children and will serve to drastically decrease their quality of life,” said researcher Ron Gomes of the University of Delaware. Booth and his supporters said a special effort must be made to reach children, so they won’t turn fat and weak like their parents and, also like their parents, get sick and die early. Type 2 diabetes, also known as adult-onset diabetes, has increased tenfold from 1982 to 1994 among the young, and one third of all new cases are among people ages 10-19, Gomes said.

to be continued.... 

In Health Jeff

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