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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

BU Finds Health of More Than Half of U.S. Adults Affected by Obesity

Considering weight across the life course, the prevalence of obesity among adults in the U.S. rises considerably, suggesting that the effects on population health may be even more pervasive than previously understood, according to a new study led by a Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH).

Writing in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, Dr. Andrew Stokes, assistant professor of global health at BUSPH, and colleagues said their findings “highlight the importance” of considering the previously obese subpopulation when monitoring the obesity epidemic.

“The results suggest that a much larger fraction of the population is affected by obesity than is reflected by statistics on current weight status alone,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers expanded the scope of their study to include all U.S. adults who were ever obese as well as the currently obese. They found that 50.8 percent of American men and 51.6 percent of American women had experienced obesity as of 2013 – 2014.

The researchers then examined data around eight diseases — diabetes, congestive heart failure, coronary heart disease, angina, heart attack, stroke, arthritis, and liver disease — and found that those who had ever experienced obesity were at greater risk than those who had not. They also found that those with a history of obesity who were not currently obese experienced disease risks distinct from people who have no history of obesity.

To better gauge the health effects of past obesity and weight changes, Dr. Stokes says researchers should look to smoking literature, which has long recognized those who have quit smoking still face smoking-related health risks, and accordingly divides the population into those who currently smoke, those who previously smoked, and those who never smoked.

“Tracking the population of former smokers is useful for understanding the success of cessation programs, taxes, and other policy efforts aimed at getting people to quit smoking,” Dr. Stokes says. Lifelong obesity data “can also potentially serve as a baseline for monitoring the obesity epidemic in future years, as new interventions become available that may lead to a shift in numbers between the current and formerly obese categories.”

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