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Bottom line? Soaring obesity rates in state cost all of us

It is no secret that Mississippi has a weight problem. We battle other southern states for the dreadful title of most obese state in the nation, and we usually win. That distinction costs us in terms of health and finance.

Figures from the Mississippi State Department of Health reveal that the national obesity rate is 58% while Mississippi’s is 65%. The state’s men are more obese than the women with 71% of Mississippi men in the obese category compared to 67% nationally, and state women are 60% obese compared to 50% in the U.S.

Among African-Americans in Mississippi, 72% are obese compared to 68% in the U.S. The state’s whites have a 62% obesity rate with 58% nationally, and the Hispanics have a 58% rate compared to 60% nationally.

Billions and billions

William A. Whitehead, M.D., a surgeon with Hattiesburg Clinic, says that obesity nationally is costing us $70 billion annually in medical costs and $30 billion in personal costs along with other indirect costs. Direct medical costs include preventive, diagnostic and treatment services related to obesity. Indirect costs relate to morbidity and mortality costs with morbidity defined as the value of income lost from decreased productivity, restricted activity, absenteeism and bed days. Mortality costs are the value of future income lost by premature death.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that adult obesity cost Mississippi $757 million for the years 1998-2000. During that same time period, the state’s Medicare costs due to obesity were $223 million and $221 in Medicaid costs.

“Obesity often leads to premature death, a lower quality of life and is the single greatest risk factor for multiple diseases including heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, dyslipidemia and cancer,” Whitehead says. “According to the Surgeon General and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the United States for adults and children. Mississippi leads the nation in obesity.”

Whitehead has been performing weight-loss surgery since the 1970s, and feels the benefits are substantial. “For the obese, losing weight adds 15 years expectancy to their lives,” he said. “There is an 80% to 90% chance they won’t become diabetic and they can interact with society and not be outcasts. There’s a huge change in their whole persona.”

Hattiesburg Clinic limits its weight-loss surgery to patients weighing 450 pounds and less. In the U.S., there were 150,000 surgical procedures for weight loss in 2006 compared to 47,000 in 2001. Whitehead says that dramatic increase is a reflection of society.

“We send all of our patients to psychological screening,” he said. “They’ve gotten that way (obese) because of their eating habits and they’re depressed.”

Diet and exercise

Whitehead feels some of the state’s obesity problem is due to hormonal and genetic factors, but a big part of it is environmental. “You can drive down Hardy Street (in Hattiesburg) and see plenty of all-you-can-eat buffets, and when you order at Wendy’s, they want to upsize your order. Lack of exercise is also a big part of it.”

The clinic periodically holds seminars on weight-loss surgery that he says are well attended. The events are free and open to the public.

The CDC says overweight and obese individuals are at increased risk for many disease and health conditions including the following:

• Hypertension

• Osteoarthritis

• Dyslipidemia

• Type two diabetes

• Coronary heart disease

• Stroke

• Gallbladder disease

• Sleep apnea/respiratory problems

• Some cancers (endrometiral, breast and colon).

And the future?

Obesity in Mississippi is not confined to adults. More and more children are becoming obese, too. The state was recently one of 10 states awarded grants in the amount of $100,000 to fight childhood obesity from the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices. The funds will be used to enhance efforts in schools and communities to counteract this problem.

The Mississippi Healthy Students Act requires public schools to provide increased physical activity and health education instruction for students in kindergarten through the eighth grade.

Another state campaign, designed for all ages, is “Let’s Go Walkin’ Mississippi,” which is designed to raise awareness of the benefits of exercise. To date, nearly 23,000 packets and pedometers have been sent to individuals, churches, schools and businesses to encourage healthy choices.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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