In 1990, no state had an obesity rate of greater than 19 percent. Two decades later, no state had an obesity rate less than 20 percent. Being overweight was well on its way to becoming the “new normal.” Ten years later, 12 states, with Indiana being one of them, now have an adult obesity rate of at least 35 percent. Mississippi has become the first state over 40 percent. Over 71% of adults today are overweight or obese. In 1900, 5% of adults worldwide had high blood pressure; by 2013, one-third of adults (almost 50% in the U.S.) had high blood pressure. Rates of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and many other preventable illnesses have skyrocketed over the past few decades.
Research of deaths in the U.S. between 1986 and 2006 found that approximately 1 in 5 adult fatalities were associated with being overweight or obese. Although not without their controversy, in raw numbers this means that well over a half a million people die every year from causes related to unhealthy weight. Over 600,000 people die every year from heart disease alone, which is often linked with being overweight. In 2017, over 190 people out of 100,000 between the age of 55-64 died from heart disease; over 165 people out of 100,000 for all ages died of heart disease. Studies indicate that men who are obese at age 20 live an average of 8 years less than those that aren’t. Yet mortality statistics only tell a part of the sad story regarding this plague.
Meanwhile, we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which estimates show is currently associated with a little over 200,000 deaths in the United States. This would indicate that around 61 per 100,000 people have died of COVID-19 related causes. That number is 2.5-3 times less than the number of people that die annually just from heart disease. As of September 21, less than 55 out of 100,000 individuals ages 55-64 had died from COVID-19, which is about 3.5 times less than the yearly deaths associated with this age group from heart disease alone. This doesn’t even consider obesity-related deaths associated with cancer, diabetes, stroke, respiratory disease, and many other causes.
We as individuals, communities, and our U.S. government have already spent trillions upon trillions of dollars over the past 7 months to address the COVID-19 pandemic. We are overhauling every aspect of our society and engaging in trillions of hours of conversation to hopefully stem the tide of this plague, which ironically is now being linked directly to the obesity pandemic that quietly rages on. Numerous studies have found that obesity is associated with higher likelihood of ICU admission and poorer outcomes for those with COVID-19. And we can’t blame the quarantine-15.
If we as a country spent a fraction of our finances and our focus on the obesity pandemic as we are with COVID-19, there is little doubt that real progress could be made. Yet as noted in the introduction to a recent American Psychologist article on obesity, Americans seem “somewhat ambivalent” about the obesity crisis, “often seeing obesity as a cosmetic issue most appropriately addressed by personal responsibility.”
Solutions to address this pandemic must be focused on three levels, all of which fundamentally work to improve habits and reduce obstacles for healthy eating, increased activity, and improved sleep. The first is at the societal/infrastructural level, which involves addressing many different barriers that make it more difficult for some groups of people, especially those of minority status and in poverty, to pursue a healthier existence. The second is at the cultural and familial level, which often spurs generations of obesity tied into time-honored means of socialization, coping mechanisms, and entertainment. The third is at the individual level. We as a healthcare community and a society have failed to really understand and address the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual obstacles to a healthy lifestyle. Prescribing exercise, healthy eating, and good sleep, and expecting people to comply without taking time to address the real barriers on an individual basis simply does not work. Meanwhile, we as people must understand that being healthy is about much more than a “personal choice” that is somehow not affecting others, or impacted by societal trends.
Failure to identify key obstacles and reasonable solutions will lead to continued failure of this cause. Ultimately, the statistics noted are not statistics at all—they are our coworkers, friends, family, and each other—whom we love deeply and want much better for than an early death and reduced quality of life.
As it currently stands, though, the voices crying out for a better, healthier world are swallowed up in a sea of hardship, excuses, complacency, and indifference as we grapple with COVID-19. Meanwhile, the silent pandemic enters its third decade, only growing stronger and more resistant to change.