In a pooled analysis of 20 prospective studies, Cari Kitahara and colleagues find that class III obesity (BMI of 40–59) is associated with excess rates of total mortality, particularly due to heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
The prevalence of class III obesity (body mass index [BMI]≥40 kg/m2) has increased dramatically in several countries and currently affects 6% of adults in the US, with uncertain impact on the risks of illness and death. Using data from a large pooled study, we evaluated the risk of death, overall and due to a wide range of causes, and years of life expectancy lost associated with class III obesity.
Methods and Findings
In a pooled analysis of 20 prospective studies from the United States, Sweden, and Australia, we estimated sex- and age-adjusted total and cause-specific mortality rates (deaths per 100,000 persons per year) and multivariable-adjusted hazard ratios for adults, aged 19–83 y at baseline, classified as obese class III (BMI 40.0–59.9 kg/m2) compared with those classified as normal weight (BMI 18.5–24.9 kg/m2). Participants reporting ever smoking cigarettes or a history of chronic disease (heart disease, cancer, stroke, or emphysema) on baseline questionnaires were excluded. Among 9,564 class III obesity participants, mortality rates were 856.0 in men and 663.0 in women during the study period (1976–2009). Among 304,011 normal-weight participants, rates were 346.7 and 280.5 in men and women, respectively. Deaths from heart disease contributed largely to the excess rates in the class III obesity group (rate differences = 238.9 and 132.8 in men and women, respectively), followed by deaths from cancer (rate differences = 36.7 and 62.3 in men and women, respectively) and diabetes (rate differences = 51.2 and 29.2 in men and women, respectively). Within the class III obesity range, multivariable-adjusted hazard ratios for total deaths and deaths due to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, nephritis/nephrotic syndrome/nephrosis, chronic lower respiratory disease, and influenza/pneumonia increased with increasing BMI. Compared with normal-weight BMI, a BMI of 40–44.9, 45–49.9, 50–54.9, and 55–59.9 kg/m2 was associated with an estimated 6.5 (95% CI: 5.7–7.3), 8.9 (95% CI: 7.4–10.4), 9.8 (95% CI: 7.4–12.2), and 13.7 (95% CI: 10.5–16.9) y of life lost. A limitation was that BMI was mainly ascertained by self-report.
Class III obesity is associated with substantially elevated rates of total mortality, with most of the excess deaths due to heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, and major reductions in life expectancy compared with normal weight.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
The number of obese people (individuals with an excessive amount of body fat) is increasing rapidly in many countries. Worldwide, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013, more than a third of all adults are now overweight or obese. Obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI, an indicator of body fat calculated by dividing a person's weight in kilograms by their height in meters squared) of more than 30 kg/m2 (a 183-cm [6-ft] tall man who weighs more than 100 kg [221 lbs] is obese). Compared to people with a healthy weight (a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 kg/m2), overweight and obese individuals (who have a BMI between 25.0 and 29.9 kg/m2 and a BMI of 30 kg/m2 or more, respectively) have an increased risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and some cancers, and tend to die younger. Because people become unhealthily fat by consuming food and drink that contains more energy (kilocalories) than they need for their daily activities, obesity can be prevented or treated by eating less food and by increasing physical activity.
Why Was This Study Done?
Class III obesity (extreme, or morbid, obesity), which is defined as a BMI of more than 40 kg/m2, is emerging as a major public health problem in several high-income countries. In the US, for example, 6% of adults are now morbidly obese. Because extreme obesity used to be relatively uncommon, little is known about the burden of disease, including total and cause-specific mortality (death) rates, among individuals with class III obesity. Before we can prevent and treat class III obesity effectively, we need a better understanding of the health risks associated with this condition. In this pooled analysis of prospective cohort studies, the researchers evaluate the risk of total and cause-specific death and the years of life lost associated with class III obesity. A pooled analysis analyzes the data from several studies as if the data came from one large study; prospective cohort studies record the characteristics of a group of participants at baseline and follow them to see which individuals develop a specific condition.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers included 20 prospective (mainly US) cohort studies from the National Cancer Institute Cohort Consortium (a partnership that studies cancer by undertaking large-scale collaborations) in their pooled analysis. After excluding individuals who had ever smoked and people with a history of chronic disease, the analysis included 9,564 adults who were classified as class III obese based on self-reported height and weight at baseline and 304,011 normal-weight adults. Among the participants with class III obesity, mortality rates (deaths per 100,000 persons per year) during the 30-year study period were 856.0 and 663.0 in men and women, respectively, whereas the mortality rates among normal-weight men and women were 346.7 and 280.5, respectively. Heart disease was the major contributor to the excess death rate among individuals with class III obesity, followed by cancer and diabetes. Statistical analyses of the pooled data indicate that the risk of all-cause death and death due to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and several other diseases increased with increasing BMI. Finally, compared with having a normal weight, having a BMI between 40 and 59 kg/m2 resulted in an estimated loss of 6.5 to 13.7 years of life.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings indicate that class III obesity is associated with a substantially increased rate of death. Notably, this death rate increase is similar to the increase associated with smoking among normal-weight people. The findings also suggest that heart disease, cancer, and diabetes are responsible for most of the excess deaths among people with class III obesity and that having class III obesity results in major reductions in life expectancy. Importantly, the number of years of life lost continues to increase for BMI values above 50 kg/m2, and beyond this point, the loss of life expectancy exceeds that associated with smoking among normal-weight people. The accuracy of these findings is limited by the use of self-reported height and weight measurements to calculate BMI and by the use of BMI as the sole measure of obesity. Moreover, these findings may not be generalizable to all populations. Nevertheless, these findings highlight the need to develop more effective interventions to combat the growing public health problem of class III obesity.
Please access these websites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001673.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information on all aspects of overweight and obesity (in English and Spanish)
The World Health Organization provides information on obesity (in several languages); Malri's story describes the health risks faced by an obese child
The UK National Health Service Choices website provides information about obesity, including a personal story about losing weight
The Global Burden of Disease Study website provides the latest details about global obesity trends
The US Department of Agriculture's ChooseMyPlate.gov website provides a personal healthy eating plan; the Weight-Control Information Network is an information service provided for the general public and health professionals by the US National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (in English and Spanish)
MedlinePlus provides links to other sources of information on obesity (in English and Spanish)