Obesity Joins American Heart Association's List Of Major Risk Factors For Heart Attack

June 01, 1998

NEW YORK, June 1 -- The American Heart Association announced today that obesity has been added to the association's list of major risk factors that people can control to prevent death and disability from coronary heart disease, the cause of heart attacks.

These major risk factors include smoking, high blood cholesterol, high blood pressure, sedentary lifestyle, and now obesity. Heredity, increasing age and being male are also regarded as risk factors by the association, but they cannot be changed.

"Obesity itself has become a life-long disease, not a cosmetic issue, nor a moral judgement -- and it is becoming a dangerous epidemic," says Robert H. Eckel, M.D., vice chairman of the American Heart Association's Nutrition Committee.

"We want to send a message to both health-care providers and the public that the time has come to take obesity seriously," says Eckel, an internationally recognized medical expert on obesity and professor of medicine and physiology and program director of the General Research Center at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver.

The association upgraded the status of obesity from a contributing risk factor to a major risk factor for heart attack due to strong scientific evidence of obesity's impact on heart disease risk and due to the increased prevalence of the condition in the population.

Research has shown that modest weight reduction -- 5 to 10 percent of body weight -- can reduce high blood pressure and total blood cholesterol. Modest achievable weight loss can also help control diabetes in some people. "Health-care providers and the public need to accept that obesity is a chronic disease, just like high blood pressure or high blood cholesterol. Its causes are a complex, individualized combination of genetics, behavior and lifestyle that we are just now beginning to understand," says Eckel.

"Today, our understanding of obesity and its impact on coronary heart disease is in its infancy -- comparable to our understanding of cholesterol's role in heart disease in the mid 1970s," adds Eckel.

Today's announcement was made in conjunction with the publication of an article titled, "American Heart Association Call to Action: Obesity as a Major Risk Factor of Coronary Heart Disease," in the June 2 issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association. The article was written by Eckel and Ronald M. Krauss, M.D., chairman of the American Heart Association's Nutrition Committee and senior scientist and head of the molecular medicine department at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley.

The article, which follows an AHA medical/scientific statement on obesity issued last fall, notes the increase of obesity in the American population. A recent survey (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III), conducted between 1988 and 1994, indicated that 22.5 percent of men and women ages 20 to 74 were obese.

"If we broaden our definition of obesity to include people who are overweight, over 50 percent of American adults and 15-20 percent of our children are overweight today," says Eckel.

There are no simple answers as to why obesity is increasing at this time. "However, one reason for the epidemic is that although Americans are eating a lower percentage of total calories from fat, they are eating more calories overall," says Eckel.

"This may be due to confusing public health messages that stressed eating a low-fat diet without calorie restriction. Contrary to some widely circulated ideas about low-fat eating, calories do count," says Eckel. Studies also indicate that Americans are more sedentary on the job and in their leisure time. Children are watching far more television and are less physically active than in the recent past.

"We need to develop better treatment and lifestyle strategies to address the issue of obesity without passing moral judgement," says Eckel.

Obesity can be treated through lifestyle strategies, such as calorie restriction and increased physical activity, medications, and in some cases, surgery.

More research on obesity is one of nine points in the American Heart Association's call to action on obesity, which also stresses the need for greater understanding by both medical professionals and the public about the complexities of weight regulation and its relationship to health.

American Heart Association

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