Senior woman with a walker and senior man walking outside

Being overweight doesn't just mean you're at risk for heart disease. It can put you at a higher risk for many ailments. Find out what types are most common and how you can reduce your risk.

When I have to hold that painful talk with many of my patients about their weight, I often find that they think of their weight as mostly a risk to their heart, but there are many other critical health risks.

Risks of obesity

Obesity is one of the fastest growing health issues in our country today. Current estimates are that 66% of adult Americans are either overweight or obese. That means that someone with a body mass index (BMI) of more than 30 is considered obese. For example, a woman who is 5 feet 5 inches tall who weighs 180 pounds or a man who is 5 feet 11 inches tall and who weighs 215 pounds are both considered obese. The normal weights for these individuals would be 150 and 180 pounds respectively. Weights between normal and obese are considered "overweight." Find out your BMI and see if you're at risk.

Your health risk increases as you move from normal to overweight to obese. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an agency of the federal government, has found that being overweight or obese increases a person's risk for developing a number of medical conditions including:

  • Coronary heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Certain cancers such as cancer of the uterus, breast and colon
  • High blood pressure
  • Elevated cholesterol and triglycerides
  • Stroke
  • Liver and gallbladder disease
  • Sleep apnea and other respiratory problems
  • Degenerative arthritis
  • Gynecologic problems such as abnormal periods and infertility
  • Periodontal and gum disease
  • Mental illness

These conditions all make sense if one thinks about the impact of the extra calories that can affect your cholesterol and sugar levels.

Stroke and diabetes

When you gain weight, your heart has to pump harder to get blood through your system, raising blood pressure. If you're obese, your stroke risk is double that of a normal person. The overexertion of your system can lead to the cells' inability to normally produce insulin, creating a resistance, eventually leading to the development of type 2 diabetes.

Cancer and arthritis risk

The extra calories that lead to obesity come from foods that may increase the association with various cancers. There was also a recent report that found a link between periodontal disease and obesity, which may be linked to the same unhealthy foods.

The liver can become a storage place for fat, affecting liver function. Fat stores some of the body's hormones—especially the female hormones—and that can affect periods and fertility. Extra weight can put more pressure on the joints, causing the degenerative form of arthritis. When your heart and liver work overtime to support your body, it takes a toll and increases your risk for illness. Not every heavy person will have all of these illnesses, but you can reduce your risk for them by following the advice of your health counselor or doctor to develop a plan to reach a normal weight. Remember that exercise and reducing portion sizes for meals and snacks are keys to keeping you healthy.

Additional information

Dr. Tom James

Dr. James is board-certified in internal medicine and in pediatrics. He received his undergraduate degree from Duke University and his medical degree from the University of Kentucky. Dr. James served his residencies at Temple University Hospital, Pennsylvania Hospital and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He is currently the chairman of Partners for a Healthy Louisville, the community's business-health coalition, and is the former chairman of the Quality Improvement Committee for the Jefferson County (Ky.) Medical Society. He is on the board of such organizations as Kentucky Opera, Hospice of Louisville Foundation and Kentucky Pediatrics Foundation.

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