The good news on the nationwide fight against rising obesity: A report from Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found obesity rates leveling off in all states but one, ending a 30-year trend towards widening waistlines. Meanwhile, rates for low-income pre-schoolers–a target group for public health campaigns–also showed improvement, falling in 19 states between 2008 and 2011, and staying the same in another 20, according to the Centers for Disease Control (10 states didn’t report).
Still, this isn’t saying very much. One in eight pre-schoolers is obese. Overall, 13 states have a rate above 30%, 41 states are above 25%, and everywhere else is higher than 20%. More than 35% of Americans are obese (meaning they have a body mass index score above 30). The numbers may have stabilized a bit–but historically they are still dreadful. In 1980, there wasn’t a single state where more than 15% of residents where obese. Now, two-thirds of Americans are officially “overweight.”
What’s the impact of all this extra fat? According to a new analysis, it’s worse than we thought. Many more people are dying for weight-related reasons. Led by Ryan Masters, at Columbia University, researchers looked at death rolls between 1986 to 2006, and found that obesity killed 18% of people aged 40 to 85. That is more than three times the conventional wisdom, which puts the rate at about 5%.
Masters says the overall trend could indicate that the obesity epidemic will get worse, not better, as time goes on. “Obesity has dramatically worse health consequences than some recent reports have led us to believe,” he says. “We expect that obesity will be responsible for an increasing share of deaths in the United States and perhaps even lead to declines in U.S. life expectancy.”
The study, which is published in the American Journal of Public Health, looks at death risks for different age, gender, and racial groups. Black women run the highest risks from obesity at 27%, followed by white women at 21%. White men had a 15% chance of dying from obesity, while black men had a 5% risk. The point is to show how we are storing up the threat of obesity for the future, and that it makes sense to think about the problem in different groups differently, says Masters.