Obesity and Life Expectancy

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Obesity has been linked to a number of chronic diseases, including Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, to name a few. Although obesity rates remained relatively stable in the 1960s and 1970s, they have skyrocketed since the 1980s, to the point that two-thirds of U.S. adults are now overweight or obese. Several experts have postulated that the obesity epidemic may result in a decline in life expectancy in the United States in the 21st century.

Obesity and Life Expectancy

One study of over a million adults in the U.S. found that death rates were linked to body mass index (BMI). In this study, death rates from cardiovascular disease were markedly elevated among individuals with higher BMIs. The lowest death rates were among women with a BMI of 22.0 to 23.4 and among men with a BMI of 23.5 to 24.9.

Other researchers have estimated that obesity causes approximately 300,000 deaths per year. Overweight and obesity in childhood is especially ominous: in men in particular, being overweight in childhood has been found to increase the risk of death from any cause.

Some researchers have determined that, in those who are extremely obese, life expectancy may be reduced by an estimated 5 to 20 years.

Obesity as a Global Problem

Numerous organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), have issued a call to action on the obesity epidemic, citing it as a major global health problem.

The WHO estimates that at least 2.8 million people worldwide die each year due to being overweight or obese.

The WHO also notes that the prevalence of obesity globally nearly doubled between 1980 and 2008, and where obesity was once associated with high-income countries, it is now associated with low- and middle-income countries as well.

Childhood obesity has become a global health problem as well; according to the WHO, over 40 million preschool children were overweight in 2008, and children who are overweight are more likely to become obese as adults.

In fact, for perhaps the first time in world history, overweight and obesity are now responsible for more deaths worldwide than deaths due to malnutrition or being underweight. Globally, according to WHO statistics, 44% of diabetes, 23% of ischemic heart disease, and as much as 41% of certain cancers can be attributed to overweight and obesity.

Obesity Treatment and Prevention

Such statistics make treatment and prevention of obesity ever more urgent. Individuals can take simple steps to prevent obesity and combat sedentary lifestyles, getting more physical activity on a daily basis and paying close attention to diet. Eliminating sources of added sugar and empty calories can go a long way toward weight management, and a growing awareness on local, national, and global levels is finally beginning to translate into community and policy measures.


Olshansky SJ, Passaro DJ, Hershow RC, et al. A potential decline in life expectancy in the United States in the 21st century. N Engl J Med 2005;352:1128-1145.

Calle EE, Thun MJ, Petrelli JM, et al. Body-mass index and mortality in a prospective cohort of U.S. adults. N Engl J Med 1999;341:1097-1105.

Allison DB, Fontaine KR, Manson JE, et al. Annual deaths attributable to obesity in the United States. JAMA 1999;282:1530-1538.

Fontaine KR, Redden DT, Wang C, et al. Years of life lost due to obesity. JAMA 2003;289:187-193.

World Health Organization. 10 facts on obesity. Accessed online at http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/obesity/facts/en/index3.html on October 2, 2014.

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