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New studies report drops in cholesterol, blood pressure, and smoking among obese people

April 19, 2005 - Obesity is a risk factor for death, but the risk appears to be much lower than it was just a few decades ago, according to new research from the CDC.

Two new studies offer compelling evidence that obese people in the U.S. today are healthier than they were in the 1970s and 1980s.

The reasons? CDC researchers who spoke to WebMD credited a combination of medical intervention and public health intervention. Medical intervention includes the increased use of drugs to control blood pressure and cholesterol; public health intervention includes the campaign that convinced millions of Americans to stop smoking.

"This tells us that certain aspects of public health efforts to improve cardiovascular disease risk factors are getting through to obese people as well as lean people," CDC epidemiologist Edward W. Gregg, PhD, tells WebMD.

The two studies are published in the April 20 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

The findings come at a time when more Americans than ever are obese, meaning that they have a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater. Someone who is 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 180 pounds or more would be considered obese, as would a 5-foot-8-inch person who weighed 200 pounds or more.

In one of the two studies, researchers reported that both underweight (BMI of less than 18.5) and obese people were at an increased risk of death compared with people of normal weight. But the obesity-related risk was lower than other studies have indicated.

Using data from a large ongoing study of nutrition and health trends in the U.S., Katherine M. Flegal, PhD, and CDC colleagues estimated that obesity was associated with about 112,000 excess deaths in the year 2000. Other researchers, reporting earlier this year, put the figure at about 400,000.

Surprisingly, no increased risk of death was seen among people who qualified as overweight but not obese -- those who had a BMI of between 25 and 29.9 and are at increased risk of obesity. That would mean weighing between 150 and 175 pounds if you are 5 feet 5 inches tall, and between 165 and 200 pounds if your height is 5 feet 8 inches.

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