Obesity Second Leading Cause of Preventable U.S. Deaths, CDC Study Finds
Poor eating habits and physical inactivity rank as the second leading cause of preventable death in the United States behind smoking, and if current trends continue, obesity could become the leading cause by next year, according to a CDC study published Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the Washington Post reports. HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said, "Americans need to understand that overweight and obesity are literally killing us," adding, "To know that poor eating habits and inactivity are on the verge of surpassing tobacco use as the leading cause of preventable death in America should motivate all Americans to take action to protect their health." Potentially fatal obesity-related health problems include heart disease, diabetes and cancer (Stein, Washington Post, 3/10). Ali Mokdad, chief of the behavioral surveillance branch at CDC, and colleagues examined U.S. mortality data for 2000. They then reviewed studies on the role that lifestyle factors have on the development of conditions such as diabetes or stroke to estimate how many of the deaths could be attributed to lifestyle. Finally, they compared their data with a similar study conducted using 1990 U.S. mortality data. Researchers found that about 50% of all U.S. deaths in 2000 were generally preventable. Of preventable deaths, an estimated 400,000 people died from causes related to poor eating habits and sedentary lifestyles -- 33% more than in 1990, when obesity caused 300,000 deaths. In comparison, 435,000 people died from smoking or exposure to tobacco in 2000, up from 400,000 in 1990. Tobacco's share as the cause of total U.S. deaths dropped from 19% to 18.1% between 1990 and 2000 (Mestel, Los Angeles Times, 3/10). Researchers found that 16.6% of 2000's preventable deaths could be attributed to poor diet and physical inactivity, up from 14% in 1990.
The incidence of overweight and obese U.S. residents has increased from about 60% of adults in 1990 -- including 20% who were obese -- to 64% in 2000, including about 30% who were obese (Washington Post, 3/10). In addition, nine million children are overweight or obese (Leonard, Boston Globe, 3/10). Obesity rates have increased among both men and women in all age groups, ethnic groups and educational levels (Los Angeles Times, 3/10). "Physical inactivity and poor diet is still on the rise. So the mortality will still go up. That's the alarming part -- the behavior is still going in the wrong direction," Mokdad said. Obesity is expected to become the leading cause of death by next year, surpassing 500,000 deaths annually to rival the number of annual deaths from cancer. Meanwhile, the toll of every other leading cause of preventable death, including alcohol, infections, accidents, guns and drugs, steadily decreased across the 10-year period, according to Mokdad (Washington Post, 3/10). An abstract of the analysis is available online.
To address the nation's obesity crisis, Thompson on Tuesday unveiled a public-service advertising campaign to encourage individuals to exercise and eat healthy foods. The campaign includes three new TV commercials, as well as print, radio and billboard ads produced by the Ad Council that are the "government's edgiest attempt yet" to push individuals to "take personal responsibility for their own health and weight," the Wall Street Journal reports (McKay/Vranica, Wall Street Journal, 3/10). Some of the ads, which encourage viewers to "take small, achievable steps," have close-ups of large stomachs, thighs and buttocks and "show how they might slim down as their owners become more active," USA Today reports (Hellmich, USA Today, 3/10). Others feature discarded love handles, double chins and potbellies that were lost with exercise and a healthy diet.
CDC Director Julie Gerberding said, "The problem of obesity is really an epidemic, and we need to apply the same tools to combat it as if it were an infectious disease epidemic." NIH Director Elias Zerhouni said that the institutes are responding to the "public health emergency" by conducting new research on the links between obesity, disease, the environmental factors that cause sedentary lifestyles and the body's metabolism. NIH's budget for obesity research increased from $378.6 million last year to $400.1 million this year, and President Bush has proposed further increasing its budget to $440.3 million next year (Boston Globe, 3/10). On Thursday a special NIH task force will present recommendations to FDA on what it can do to help reverse obesity trends (Washington Post, 3/10).
Several broadcast programs reported on the study:
- ABCNews' "World News Tonight": The segment includes comments from Dr. Henry Anhalt of Children's Hospital in New York; Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University; and Thompson (Stark, "World News Tonight," ABCNews, 3/9).
- CNN's "Paula Zahn Now": The segment includes comments from Johnson & Johnson Vice President Dr. Nancy Snyderman (Zahn, "Paula Zahn Now," CNN, 3/9). The complete transcript is available online.
- NBC's "Nightly News": The segment includes comments from Dr. Howard Eisenson, director of the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center, and Thompson (Bazell, "Nightly News," NBC, 3/9). The complete segment is available online in Windows Media.