Israeli Research Proves Teenage Obesity Can Be Lethal in Adulthood

The study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, is based on a database of some 2.3 million 17-year-old Israelis over a period of more than four decades.

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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A kid stands on a scale at a children's clinic.
A kid stands on a scale at a children's clinic. Credit: David Bachar
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

Israeli scientists have found that overweight adolescents face a risk of dying from cardiovascular diseases including coronary heart disease, stroke and sudden death in adulthood.

The study, published last week in The New England Journal of Medicine, is based on a database of some 2.3 million 17-year-old Israelis over a period of more than four decades. The researchers studied Israelis about to join the military between 1967 and 2010.

They found that any rise above a body mass index considered normal raises the risk of fatal cardiovascular diseases later in life.

Financed by the Environment and Health Fund, the study shows that the risk of dying from cardiovascular diseases among people overweight when teens could be five times higher than among people of normal weight.

The study was conducted by Prof. Jeremy Kark (who led the study) and Dr. Hagai Levine of Hebrew University’s Hadassah Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine. They teamed up with Dr. Gilad Twig of Sheba Medical Center. Scientists from the Health Ministry, Tel Aviv University and the military’s Medical Corps also took part.

Increased numbers of overweight and obese adolescents – currently a third of adolescents in some developed countries – has become a major concern in many countries, including Israel. Last week Health Minister Yaakov Litzman called on McDonald’s to leave the country; he was speaking at the Israel Heart Society’s annual conference.

“There’s no need to eat junk food .... There’s no need to eat McDonald’s,” Litzman said in a rare public attack on a company by a minister.

Litzman said that his ministry would focus on prevention this year, and that his ministry had launched a campaign to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks and food. It would also ban the sale of unhealthy foods at schools and preschools.

Levine of Hebrew University added: “The fact that in Israel every person has an I.D. number that appears in various databases enables us to cross information and build a comprehensive, detailed national database.” The tests that the army conducts on new conscripts have been consistent over the years, and this helped in the study, he added.

The researchers sought to determine the link between the body mass index in late adolescence and death from cardiovascular causes in adulthood. They found that the mortality risk from cardiovascular diseases rose once a person’s body mass index exceeded 22.5, the average.

The index reflects body mass in kilograms divided by the square of a person’s height in meters. A range of 18.5 to 25 is considered normal, 25 to 30 is overweight, 30 to 39.9 is obese and above that is morbid obesity.

In the 44 years of data, 32,127 people died, 2,918 (9.1 percent) of them from cardiovascular disease. These figures suggest a connection between weight increase and the mortality risk. The diseases begin when the patient’s weight is relatively low and considered within the accepted normal range.

The researchers concluded that even a body mass index considered normal during adolescence was linked to an increase in mortality from coronary disease, stroke and cardiovascular problems.

The 2,918 mortalities among the subjects consisted of 1,497 deaths from coronary diseases, 528 from stroke and 893 from sudden death. But the scientists did not have the body mass indexes of the participants in adulthood or other factors in their lifestyle that affect heart function such as smoking and physical activity.

Despite this, the scientists say the large database is telling.

“The study gives us a 44-year perspective that shows a dramatic, alarming rise in the rate of overweight and obesity,” Levine said. “The results indicate the future danger obesity poses to public health.”

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