Obesity Tops List of Causes for Lost Years of Life, Beating Tobacco


The most common modifiable behavioral risk factors identified in the study are all treatable, suggesting that prevention could go a long way toward reducing their impact.

Obesity causes Americans to lose more years of life than any other cause, including smoking cigarettes, according to a new study from researchers at the Cleveland Clinic and the New York University School of Medicine.

The team found that obesity resulted in as much as 47% more lost life years than tobacco, while high blood pressure and tobacco took a similar number of years off the life span.

Preliminary results were presented at the 2017 annual meeting of the Society of General Internal Medicine, which met this weekend in Washington, DC. The study analyzed how much modifiable behavioral risk factors contribute to life expectancy in the US population, based on 2014 data.

Risk factors that contribute to lost years of life, in order, were obesity, diabetes, tobacco use, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. However, the effect of certain factors on those who have more than one can vary by individual. The study cited the example of an obese person who also drank too much alcohol—the alcohol abuse may be of greater concern, even though obesity is more harmful to the overall population.

“These preliminary results continue to highlight the importance of weight loss, diabetes management, and healthy eating in the US population,” Glen Taksler, PhD, a researcher in internal medicine at Cleveland Clinic said in a statement.

To gauge the number of life-years lost to each risk factor, the research team examined how mortality changed in the population as each condition was eliminated. Results from the change in life-years were compared with an “optimal” population that had no risk factors.

While the good news is that efforts to curb tobacco use have pushed it off the top of the list, the bad news is that obesity and diabetes are taking its place. Public health campaigns, including bans on indoor smoking in public places and tobacco taxes, have brought this decline—and the question is how to take a similar public health approach to the related problems of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, and cholesterol.

All can be treated, and all highlight the importance of making preventive care a priority for clinicians.

“The reality is, while we may know the proximate cause of a patient’s death—for example, from breast cancer or a heart attack—we don’t always know the contributing factors, such as tobacco use, obesity, alcohol, and family history,” Taksler said. “For each major cause of death, we identified a root case to understand whether there was a way a person could have lived longer.”


Research was presented at The Society of General Internal Medicine 2017 Annual Meeting, “Resilience and Grit: Pursuing Organizational Change & Preventing Burnout in GIM April 19-22, 2017; Washington, DC.

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