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Teen Obesity as Deadly as Smoking

Study Shows Obese Teens Have Similar Risk for Early Death as Teen Smokers
By
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Feb. 25, 2009 -- Obese teens are just as likely to die before they reach old age as teens who are heavy smokers, while those who are overweight, but not obese, have the same risk for early death as lighter smokers, a new study shows.

Researchers followed 45,000 Swedish men from the time they were drafted into the military at the age of 18 until most were in their mid-50s.

They found that those who were obese in their late teens had nearly double the risk of dying during the almost four decades of follow-up, compared to those whose weight was normal at age 18.

This was a similar increase in risk as seen in men who smoked more than 10 cigarettes a day in their late teens.

Men who were overweight, but not obese, in their teens and did not smoke had a similar risk for early death as normal-weight teens who smoked one to 10 cigarettes a day.

The study appears in the latest issue of the journal BMJ Online.

"Most parents would warn their child about the dangers of even moderate smoking, but most probably wouldn't associate being overweight with the same level of risk," study researcher Martin Neovius, PhD, of Sweden's Karolinska Institute tells WebMD.

Obesity, Smoking, and Early Death

Normal weight in the study was defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 18.5 to 24.9, while overweight men had a BMI of 25 to 29.9; obese men had a BMI of 30 or above.

Under this definition a 6-foot-2-inch person who weighs between 144 and 194 pounds is considered normal weight, while a 195- to 233-pound person is considered overweight; 234 pounds or heavier is considered obese.

In an effort to determine the early death risk associated with being overweight, obese, or a smoker in late adolescence, Neovius and colleagues analyzed data from a national military conscription register of Swedish men born between 1949 and 1951.

Because military conscription was compulsory in Sweden during this time, the registry represents a nationally representative sample of the country's males in their late teens at enrollment.

During an average of 38 years of follow-up, 2,897 of the roughly 45,000 men included in the study died.

The study also revealed that:

  • Men who were obese at age 18 had a similar risk for early death as men who were heavy smokers but whose weight was normal in their late teens.
  • Men who were obese and heavy smokers at age 18 were nearly five times as likely to die before age 60 as normal-weight, nonsmoking teens. Heavy smokers who were overweight in their teens were roughly three times more likely as normal-weight, nonsmoking teens to die young.
  • Men who were very underweight in their late teens had an increased risk for early death that was similar to overweight men.

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