By Amir Khan
Obesity appears to be deadlier than experts thought, according to a new study in the American Journal of Public Health. While previous estimates put the mortality rate of obesity at around 5 percent, researchers from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health in New York City found that the death rate is actually closer to 18 percent - meaning that nearly 1 in 5 obese people will die of obesity and associated conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
Laurie Wells worries that she could one day be a case in point. Concerned about how her weight is affecting her health, she has tried to take control of it. "I was having angina, IBS and high blood pressure before I started losing weight," she said. "I worried, because I thought that if I kept my lifestyle up, diabetes was going to be next on the list."
She was 55 years old when she decided to take a stand and do something about her weight. At 280 pounds, she had heart problems and was unable to accomplish some day to day tasks. Three years later, with the help of the South Beach Diet, she managed to lose 75 pounds.
However, her celebration was short-lived. Knee and back problems took away much of her mobility last year, and she put back on some of the weight she had lost. "I became confined to a wheelchair while I waited surgery on my herniated disk," said Wells, now 60. "I couldn't exercise, and I started neglecting my diet. I regained 30 pounds."
Wells, who lives in Phoenix, Ariz., currently weighs 235 pounds. "I wasn't very happy when I started gaining back the weight," she said. "It's hard to stay positive and not become so negative that you spiral out of control."
Underestimates of Obesity's Health Consequences
Wells is one of nearly 78 million obese adults in the United States -- and this study shows that the problem is worse than experts thought.
"Obesity has dramatically worse health consequences than some recent reports have led us to believe," study author Ryan Masters, PhD, a research at the Mailman, said in a statement. "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 obesity rate in the United States has been steadily rising since 1990, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 1990, no state had an obesity rate over 19 percent, but by 2010, no state had an obesity rate below 20 percent. It's a worrying trend, said Stacy Brethauer, MD, a specialist at the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute for the Cleveland Clinic.
"If the obesity rate continues to increase, which we anticipate will happen, we can expect to see an increasing mortality rate as well," Dr. Brethauer said. "The magnitude of the increase may be less, but there are so many obese and overweight teens who will continue to be obese as adults."
In addition, Brethauer said, the Mailman study also refutes the idea that obese people can escape the negative health effects and be "fit and fat."
"This study shows that even being overweight is associated with higher mortality rates," he said. "All along that spectrum of being overweight or obese, there is an increased risk of mortality and health problems."
Can Fear of Dying Be a Weight Loss Motivator?
For Wells, the study's findings are a reminder of not only of how far she's come, but also how far she still needs to go.
"I am motivated by continuing to do things that will improve or maintain my health," she said. "Just because I may slip up one day, I can start over the very next bite. I can change direction in a moment. I don't use a slip-up anymore as an excuse to throw everything away. I give myself permission to be human and move on. I know I am capable of success."
And she tries not to use her fear of death and disease as a motivator.
"Mortality rates might spur me to get moving, but improving my quality of life and giving myself the ability to do what I want to do is what really keeps me going," said Wells. "If you gave me a choice of living to 100 but being in pain, or living to 90 and still being able to travel, I'd pick 90."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story understated the number of obese Americans. Everyday Health regrets the error.
"Obesity Kills 1 in 5 -- Four Times What Experts Thought" originally appeared on Everyday Health.