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Obesity as a Chronic Disease: A Big Problem

Obesity as a chronic disease has quickly become a modern epidemic. Since 1975 its prevalence has tripled worldwide, with 13% of the world’s adults considered obese, and 39% qualifying as overweight. The World Health Organization, and other scientific organizations, define obesity as a chronic disease that results from a buildup of excessive body fat that can harm health. While that is a somewhat broad definition, it’s essential to understand the different conditions chronic obesity can lead to.

Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes

Firstly, obesity can lead to Type 2 diabetes, a condition characterized by blood glucose levels too high for the body to manage. Individuals affected by obesity are at a significantly higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, which can lead to a range of complications.

  • Cardiovascular Disease: Individuals with type 2 diabetes are at a significantly higher risk of developing cardiovascular diseases. Heart attack, stroke, and peripheral artery disease are all elevated concerns for type 2 diabetics. Diabetes accelerates the process of atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries), which can lead to blockages in blood vessels supplying the heart and brain.
  • Kidney Disease (Diabetic Nephropathy): Diabetes can damage the kidneys over time, leading to a condition called diabetic nephropathy. This can progress to chronic kidney disease and eventually kidney failure, necessitating dialysis or kidney transplantation.
  • Nerve Damage (Neuropathy): Prolonged high blood sugar levels can damage the nerves throughout the body, leading to neuropathy. This can cause numbness, tingling, or pain in the extremities, digestive issues, and sexual dysfunction. In severe cases, neuropathy can lead to foot ulcers and lower limb amputation.
  • Amputation: Diabetes can impair blood flow to the feet and damage nerves. This increases the risk of foot ulcers, infections, and poor wound healing. Severe foot complications may require amputation.

For more information on Type 2 Diabetes, visit one of our earlier blogs The Truth About Type 2 Diabetes.

An image of someone using a blood glucose test, a common practice for those with Type 2 Diabetes which obesity puts people at an increase risk for.

Obesity & Hypertension

Obesity is also closely linked to high blood pressure, also known as hypertension. Approximately three out of four patients with high blood pressure are obese. If left untreated or unmanaged, hypertension can lead to several serious health risks, including:

  • Kidney Damage: Hypertension can damage the blood vessels in the kidneys, impairing their ability to filter waste products from the blood. Over time, this can lead to chronic kidney disease and eventually kidney failure, requiring dialysis or kidney transplantation.
  • Stroke: Hypertension is a major risk factor for stroke, a condition where the blood supply to the brain is interrupted or reduced, leading to brain damage. High blood pressure can cause blood vessels in the brain to weaken and rupture (hemorrhagic stroke) or become blocked by blood clots (ischemic stroke).
  • Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD): Chronic hypertension can damage the arteries throughout the body, including those supplying the legs and arms. This can lead to peripheral artery disease, a condition characterized by reduced blood flow to the extremities. This can result in pain, numbness, and impaired wound healing.
  • Aneurysms: Hypertension increases the risk of developing aneurysms, which are weak spots in the walls of blood vessels. These weak spots can bulge and rupture, causing life-threatening internal bleeding. Aneurysms can occur in various locations, including the aorta (aortic aneurysm) and the brain (cerebral aneurysm).
  • Vision Problems: Chronic hypertension can damage the blood vessels in the eyes, leading to retinopathy, a condition that can cause vision problems and, if left untreated, may lead to blindness.

It’s essential for individuals with hypertension to work closely with healthcare professionals. Monitoring and managing blood pressure through lifestyle modifications, medication, and regular check-ups to reduce the risk of these serious complications.

An image of an individual having their blood pressure taken. Obesity puts people at an elevated risk of developing hypertension.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

Obesity can also lead to respiratory disorders like obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Sleep Apnea can have significant health implications if left untreated. Some of the health risks associated with sleep apnea include:

  • Arrhythmias: OSA is associated with an increased risk of cardiac arrhythmias, including atrial fibrillation, bradycardia (slow heart rate), and ventricular arrhythmias. The intermittent drops in blood oxygen levels and changes in intra-thoracic pressure during apnea episodes can trigger electrical disturbances in the heart.
  • Neurocognitive Impairment: OSA can impair cognitive function and lead to daytime sleepiness, fatigue, and decreased alertness. Chronic sleep disruption and intermittent hypoxemia can contribute to issues in attention, memory, executive function, and mental performance.
  • Mood Disorders: OSA is associated with an increased risk of mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. The chronic sleep disruption and alterations in neurotransmitter levels resulting from untreated OSA can contribute to mood disturbances and affect emotional well-being.

Additionally, those with sleep apnea can suffer from a range of other conditions previously mentioned like cardiovascular disease and hypertension. You can start to see how interconnected obesity and the various resulting conditions are. Many of these conditions lead to an increased risk of something obesity already elevates your risk for and that is part of why it is such a major issue. The more you can avoid putting your health and quality of life at risk, the better off you will be.

Prevention and Management

The good news is that obesity is largely preventable and manageable. While not all effects of obesity can be completely reversed, significant improvements can be made with a decrease in weight. Early intervention is crucial in addressing obesity and mitigating its associated health risks. Lifestyle changes, including adopting a balanced diet and engaging in regular physical activity, play a vital role in weight management.

For individuals with severe obesity, there are more options available today than ever before. Medical interventions such as bariatric surgery, or the prescribing of GLP-1 medications, paired with a proper diet and exercise, can push certain chronic weight responsive medical conditions into remission. Additionally, support networks and resources, including healthcare professionals and community programs, can provide valuable assistance and guidance on the journey to better health. For more resources, Harvard’s School of Public Education has provided this list for those seeking additional help in dealing with obesity.

Review

In summary, understanding that there are numerous associated health risks with obesity is paramount for your well-being and longevity. The severity of health risks escalates every day spent at an unhealthy weight. That is why the importance of early intervention and proactive management can’t be understated. By taking action to prevent and manage obesity, you can significantly reduce your risk of developing debilitating health conditions. As they say, “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure”, and that statement rings true regarding obesity.

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