Millions die from obesity worldwide, says York study

Obesity is a significant factor in increasing rates of disease globally with the number of deaths related to a high body mass index (BMI) more than doubled from 1990 to 2017, say York University researchers.

In 2017 alone, 2.4 million women and 2.3 million men died worldwide from having a high BMI.

Professor Jianhong Wu. Image by Paola Scattolon

“Few studies have assessed this disease burden at a global level,” says Faculty of Science math modelling Professor Jianhong Wu, the paper’s corresponding author along with York Postdoctoral Fellow Nicola Bragazzi and visiting PhD student Haijiang Dai from Central South University, China.

In addition, the researchers found there were more than 70 million disability adjusted life-years (DALYs) for females and 77 million DALYs for males in 2017. Each DALY is equal to one year of good health lost because of disability or early death.

The age-standardized rate of DALYs for high BMIs increased by about 12 per cent for women and 26 per cent for men, whereas the global rate almost doubled for both sexes.

Cardiovascular disease was the leading cause of high BMI-related DALYs, followed by diabetes, kidney diseases and tumours. Together, they accounted for more than 89 per cent of all high BMI-related DALYs.

The researchers used the most recent data available (2017) from the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study to assess the burden of disease attributable to a high body mass index in 195 countries and territories.

“The results suggest that high a BMI is still a major global health challenge and initiatives targeting high BMIs may mitigate the burden of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and kidney disease, and tumours,” says Wu.

However, as the disease burden varies widely by socio-demographics and countries, strategies need to be country-specific, say the researchers.

In the United States alone, the burden of disease by a high BMI has been estimated at $113.9 billion in direct healthcare costs.

“There is little attention given to behaviour risk factors, such as the psychological, behavioral and social determinants of health, during medical training,” says Bragazzi. “They are usually overlooked in favour of biological aspects of diseases. We hope this study will better inform prevention and intervention strategies for obesity.”

The study was published in the journal PLOS Medicine.