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The Long Reach of Obesity
Obesity is linked to a host of afflictions—from allergies
Sheila, a 45-year-old Oklahoma bookkeeper, has suffered from sleep apnea and asthma for as long as she can remember. The conditions have worsened. “I can go to sleep, but I don’t stay asleep,” she says. “I stop breathing and my husband wakes me up.” Frustrating her more, the fatigue has put a crimp in her exercise routine: walking briskly while carrying three-pound weights.
Sheila, who asked that her last name not be used, said the exercise is needed to help her shed some of the 165 pounds that saddle her 5’3” frame. Her body mass index, or BMI, is 28.1, less than two points short of the 30-BMI “obese” mark. Adding to the urgency, she said she has recently begun to see a larger picture emerge and has linked the 25 pounds she has put on over the past year or so to her worsening health issues. “I really didn’t think about it until about a month ago,” she said, “and I realized, you know, all the dots are starting to connect.”
There’s no dearth of public service messages warning of the heart disease and diabetes risks that come from bearing too much weight. As real and pervasive as those risks are, the tentacles of obesity reach even further. As Sheila may be learning, obesity is linked to a host of afflictions—from allergies and asthma to arthritis and skin infections—whose relationship with excess weight gets far less ink.
Half the chapters in an October 2008 American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) report on obesity and its health effects are devoted to afflictions with lesser-known links. “Some of these health problems are more associated with increasing morbidity than mortality,” says Ruth Kava, PhD, RD, the ACSH’s nutrition director. “When you’re talking about arthritis, for example, regular osteoarthritis doesn’t kill people. But it certainly makes life unpleasant. In other cases, the connections just aren’t that clear to most people.”
Some ailments, like the sleep apnea that Sheila is afflicted with, are becoming more well known because more Americans have added girth, says Kenneth Prager, MD, a pulmonary specialist and professor of clinical medicine at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons.
Prager says 80% of his sleep apnea and asthma patients are overweight or obese. “People who are obese may also have a higher incidence of reflux (heartburn), which can impact asthma,” he says.
While sleep apnea, often marked by daytime sleepiness, is relatively new on the radar of modern medicine, 19th century doctors may also have encountered it and recognized a connection between obesity and extreme sleepiness, says the ACSH. It was sometimes known...