The number of deaths in the United States caused by obesity may be almost four times higher than what has been widely believed, according to a new analysis. A team of researchers from Columbia University found that in the 20-year period ending in 2006, 18.2 percent of premature deaths in the country were caused by excess body weight. That estimate, published in the American Journal of Public Health, is significantly higher than the 5 percent rate that is usually cited by medical professionals.
The study's authors used historical data to compare the rates of obesity across different gender, ethnic and age groups. Then, they combined that data with existing "mortality risk" statistics to estimate how many Americans over age 40 who died during that 20-year period did so because of excess weight.
"We believe we have a clearer picture of how obesity is impacting the population," wrote Ryan Masters, lead author of the study, in a statement. "Not only is the problem more serious than previously thought, it is destined to get worse as younger generations move into adulthood. It's quite worrisome."
According to the study's findings, American women are significantly more likely than men to die of a weight-related illness, and African American women are more adversely affected by excess weight than other groups. Masters indicated in his conclusion that he may explore the reasons for this disparity in further research.
The researchers estimate that for the next few decades, the percentages of deaths caused by obesity will continue to rise. The historical data indicated that each successive generation born since 1915 has had more weight-related illnesses than their ancestors.
Masters said he hopes his analysis will provide medical professionals and the general public with a better understanding of the toll obesity has taken and prompt them to take more preventative measures.
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