Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Americans are twice as likely as Europeans to be obese, a new study shows.

The higher rate of obesity leads to more older adults in the U.S. suffering from costly chronic diseases such as diabetes, according to new research reported today in the health policy journal Health Affairs.

Researchers from Emory University compared data from 2004, the most recent year such information was available, on the treatment of diseases among adults age 50 and older in the U.S. and 10 European countries. The countries included were Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

The study found that 17.1 percent of European adults are obese but the rate is nearly double — 33 percent — for American adults. Obesity is a leading cause of chronic diseases such as diabetes and high blood pressure that are a drag on the U.S. health care system.

The study did not address a reason for the higher obesity rate in the United States.

“We expected to see differences between disease prevalence in the United States and Europe, but the extent of the differences is surprising,” said Kenneth Thorpe, the lead researcher and chairman of Emory University’s Health Policy and Management Department. “It is possible that we spend more on health care because we are, indeed, less healthy.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 80 percent of diabetes, heart disease and strokes could be eliminated through reductions in obesity.

Mr. Thorpe added that if the U.S. is able to bring down the obesity rate to Europe’s level, the system could save $100 billion a year. Health care spending per person in the U.S. was $6,037 in 2004, compared with $3,191 in France.

Most European health care systems are predominantly paid for with government money, unlike the U.S. system, which relies on private insurers.

The prevalence of conditions associated with obesity, such as heart disease, hypertension and diabetes, were much higher in the U.S. The only illness examined in the study that Europeans get more often than Americans is osteoporosis.

While obesity is a driving force behind a high rate of diagnosed chronic illnesses, so too is the aggressive approach the U.S. takes in treating patients with disease symptoms. The study found that the prevalence of diagnosed cancer cases was 12.2 percent in the U.S. but only 5.4 in Europe.

“Are Americans really more likely to develop malignant tumors, or are they just screened more intensely than Europeans are?” the researchers asked in the study.

When it comes to breast cancer screenings, the study found, Americans are screened much more often. However, researchers pointed out, cancer is not strongly associated with obesity.

“Americans are more obese than Europeans; compared with Britons, they have elevated blood levels of disease markers. These observations suggest that Americans are, in fact, sicker,” the study said.

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