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12/05/2014 12:19 pm ET Updated Dec 05, 2014

Obesity Can Take 8 Years Off Your Life, Study Finds

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Today, more than one-third of American adults -- or 78.6 million people -- are considered obese. A new study pinpoints why we should take that statistic very seriously.

The research out of McGill University has found that obesity can shorten your life expectancy by up to eight years. In addition, excess weight can cut the average lifespan by close to two decades of healthy years, thanks to the increased risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Professor and epidemiologist Steven Grover, M.D., the study's lead author, said that the age at which you pack on those extra pounds is a key factor and that the worst outcomes were in people who gained the weight at younger ages.

For the study, published in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, Grover and his colleagues utilized data from 4,000 people involved in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to analyze the contribution of excess body weight to years of life lost and healthy years of life lost. Grover found that those who were very obese could lose up to eight years of life, while obese people could lose up to six years of life. People who were simply overweight could lose up to three years of life.

People are generally considered overweight if they have a body mass index (BMI) of 25 to 29.9. Those who are obese have a BMI of 30 and above, and a healthy BMI is generally defined as 18.5 to 25. Body mass index is calculated using a person's weight and height and is, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, a fairly reliable indicator of body fat for most people.

"The pattern is clear -- the more an individual weighs and the younger their age, the greater the effect on their health," Grover said in a written release. "In terms of life-expectancy, we feel being overweight is as bad as cigarette smoking."

Personalizing this information will make it more relevant and compelling for patients. "What may be interesting for patients are the 'what if?' questions. What if they lose 10 to 15 pounds? Or, what if they are more active? How will this change the numbers?" Grover said in the statement. Towards that end, the research team has launched a three-year study in community pharmacies across the country to determine whether presenting this information to patients will actually help them adopt healthier habits, including eating more nutritiously and getting regular physical activity.

"These clinically meaningful models are useful for patients, and their healthcare professionals, to better appreciate the issues and the benefits of a healthier lifestyle, which we know is difficult for many of us to adopt and maintain," Grover said.

Obesity has long been linked to a variety of health troubles, including high blood pressure to stroke to cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic.

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