Eduardo Sanchez, MD, MPH, Chief Medical Officer for Prevention and Chief of the Center for Health Metrics and Evaluation, American Heart Association
Obesity in adults 20 and older and youth 12 to 19 is at an all-time high — nearly 40 percent and 20 percent, respectively, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These new estimates, while troubling, aren’t surprising. The prevalence of obesity among adults and youth has been rising slowly since 1999.
Even more alarming are the disparities in obesity prevalence by race and ethnicity. Non-Hispanic black (47 percent) and Hispanic adults (47 percent) have a higher prevalence of obesity compared to non-Hispanic whites (38 percent) and non-Hispanic Asian adults (13 percent). Similar disparities exist among youth.
We cannot become complacent with these health-threatening and life-threatening levels of obesity. Even an otherwise “healthy” obese person is at risk for heart disease, stroke and diabetes – not to mention cancer and other chronic diseases that are also strongly associated with obesity and a lower quality of life and a shorter life expectancy.
Despite this gloomy scenario, the good news is that we can address obesity with proven fact-based strategies. We must engage leaders at all levels and across all sectors of society to use their resources so every person has an equal and just opportunity to be healthy.
An equal opportunity to be healthy means an equitable approach to getting healthy. “Equal” doesn’t mean that everyone requires or receives the same amount of care and resources, but rather that individuals and communities receive the care and resources needed to be healthy. For example, a healthcare provider sees two patients, assesses each one’s needs and treats each one specifically to achieve the desired outcome. For one patient, lifestyle modification alone may be enough. For the other, lifestyle modification plus medications may be necessary. We should apply a similar approach to preventing and reducing obesity. Better screening for obesity and counseling to promote healthier eating and more physical activity, combined with school-based and workplace approaches, are examples of how to address obesity equitably.
These CDC data should galvanize our efforts to implement proven strategies in more places, to reach more people. Advocates and decision makers in all sectors must work smarter, faster, more creatively and equitably to help create environments that make healthy lifestyle choices easier, more attractive and more affordable for all Americans.
At the Center for Health Metrics and Evaluation, our goal is to use data and evidence to transform systems, environments and policies to improve health. We are measuring the American Heart Association’s impact on curbing the obesity crisis. This includes quantifying our efforts in communities, schools, clinical settings, faith-based organizations and workplaces, as well as legislatures at the local, state and national levels.
As the Center identifies the best investments for achieving our vision — that everyone lives with optimal health — we’ll share our findings and promote their uptake. After all, we’re in the business of building healthier lives, free of cardiovascular diseases and stroke. And because no one is immune from the risks of heart disease, the nation’s No. 1 one cause of death, we’re all in this together.