Supposed you woke up and the TV news and newspapers revealed that scientists had discovered a global threat affecting all races, both genders, reducing lifespans and causing millions of cases of disabilities, likely to cost billions of dollars a year. There was no clear cause and no treatment which seemed available, except, in some cases, surgically removing part of the GI track seemed to work…for a while.
What would you say? “Who cares”? “It’s their own fault”? “How much is this going to cost me?” Perhaps, you would call your Congressional representative and Senator and demand a crash research program to find a cure? Or you could quibble for, say, forty years or so, over who is to blame and whether this “threat” is a condition, syndrome, risk factor or (God forbid!) a disease? Well, the latter is pretty much what we have been doing about obesity. Three new papers show the impact of obesity on mortality, disability and disability-related health care costs, reminding us of the toll this disease takes on the human body.
First, regarding mortality, a great number of studies have been published and the public is still confused. Now, Chang and colleagues, have published a paper in which they are able to predict life years lost associated with obesity-related diseases for non-smoking US adults. They found that obesity-related comorbidities are associated with large decreases in life years and increases in mortality rates. Years of life lost is more marked for younger than older adults, for blacks more than whites, for males than females and for more obese than less obese. Their study confirmed that being obese or underweight increased the risk of mortality. Furthermore, an obesity-related disease, such as coronary heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and stroke, increased the chances of dying and decreased life years by 0.2 to 11.7 years, depending on gender, race, BMI and age. Obesity-related diseases were expected to shorten lifespan of people in their 20s by more than 5 years, while people in their 60s were predicted to lose just under one year of life. See, Chang SH, Pollack LM, Colditz, Life Years Lost Associated with Obesity-Related Diseases for U.S. Non-Smoking Adults.
Obesity-related diseases are also only partially understood. Type 2 diabetes and heart disease are commonly associated with obesity but there are a host of other conditions which are less well-known and appreciated. Among these are the disabling conditions associated with obesity. Brian S. Armour, et al, have looked at disability prevalence among persons who are obese. Of the 25.4% of US adults who are obese (53.4 million), 41.7% reported a disability in contrast to 26.7% of those at a healthy weight and 28.5% of those who were overweight. Movement difficulty was the most common type of basic action difficulty, affecting 32.5% of the adults with obesity. Of course, movement difficulties can hinder physical activity for weight loss.
Work limitations affected 16.6% of the adults with obesity. Visual difficulty was the common sensory difficulty at 11.5%, probably attributable to type 2 diabetes. 20.5% of adults with obesity reported complex activity limitation, compared to 12% of those at a healthy weight. All estimates for disability were significantly higher for people who were obese compared to those with a healthy weight. The prevalence of cognitive difficulty, contrary to Hank Cardello’s implications, was low at 3.6% for persons with obesity. However, persons at a healthy weight had higher cognitive difficulty than those who are overweight, 2.9% v. 2.4%. Armour BS, Courtney—Long EA, Campbell VA, Wethington HR, Disability Prevalence among health weight, overweight, and obese adults. Obesity, 2013 Apr.21 (4); 852-5.
Wayne L. Anderson, Joshua M. Weiner and colleagues widen the picture of persons who are obese with disabilities in terms of health care costs. Their new study estimates the additional average health care expenditures for overweight and obese adults with and without disabilities. They found that people with disabilities who were obese had almost three times the additional average costs of obesity compared to people without disabilities, $2,459 v. $889. Prescription drug costs were 3 times higher and outpatient expenditures were 74% higher. People with disabilities in the 45-64 year age group had the highest obesity expenditures. Overweight people with and without disabilities had lower expenditures than normal-weight people with and without disabilities. The authors note, “A substantial portion of people with disabilities are obese. People with disabilities are at higher risk of obesity because some conditions such as arthritis and diabetes are characterized by high levels of functional impairment. Arthritis can readily limit mobility, which may result in substantial weight gain over time. For diabetes, weight gain can be a byproduct of insulin use if patients do not effectively manage their weight. The coexistence of disability, obesity, and serious chronic conditions may result in very high health care expenditures.” Anderson WL, Wiener JM, Khatutsky G, Armour, BS Obesity and People with Disabilities: The Implications for Health Care Expenditures. Obesity, 2013 June 26, (epub ahead of print).
So, obesity is a driver of mortality and morbidity but is not a disease? Eh?