Obesity epidemic grows in adults; perhaps levels off in youth

American adults’ obesity is at epidemic proportions.

March 24, 2018, 7:02 AM

The U.S. is big, and getting bigger. Since the 1980s, American adults’ obesity is at epidemic proportions, and there does not seem to be an end in sight.

Rates of obesity in those younger leveled off between 2005 and 2014, but a recent report in JAMA wanted to know if there has been any change.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which takes various measures of the health and nutrition of children and adults in the U.S., using interviews and physical exams.

A woman stands on a bathroom scale in this undated stock photo.
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Body Mass Index (BMI) measures from almost 30,000 adults and 17,000 young people tell the story between 2007 and 2016.

On BMI measurements: Adults are obese when their BMI is over 30; severe obesity is any BMI over 40. A normal BMI ranges between 18.5 and 24.9. In those under 20 years old, obesity is measured against what is normal for one's age -- obesity is greater than the 95th percentile, while severe obesity is at or above 120 percent of the 95th percentile.

The CDC results were mixed: in the young, the prevalence of obesity was 16.8 percent in 2007; it was 18.5 percent 10 years later.

There were no significant differences when looking at age or gender, but that’s still nearly 2 out of every 10 kids weighing in as obese. Our youth aren’t in the clear just yet.

For adults, it was a more stark story: obesity increased from 33.7 percent to 39.6 percent over 10 years -- it stood out most in women, and in adults over 40. That’s a shocking 2 out of 5 adults.

A woman uses a weight measure in this undated stock photo.

Severely obese adults went from 5.7 percent to 7.7 percent, showing up the most in adults from age 20 to 59.

Americans, it seems, may not realize that these trends increase risk for all types of disease, from heart attack, stroke, and diabetes to many forms of cancer.

And although we are seeing a potential plateau of obesity cases in our kids, we continue to hear about them being diagnosed with high blood pressure and diabetes, requiring medication management -- for diseases we often associate with adults.

Although the report did not give any recommendations about these results, it is telling that the obesity epidemic isn’t losing its heft.

Doctors argue that we cannot accept this as society’s new normal –- unless we accept a higher death rate as well. Perhaps the thought of raising more healthy families will prove to be motivation to change.

Dr. Najibah Rehman, MD, MPH, is a third-year preventive medicine resident at the University of Michigan, working in the ABC News Medical Unit.