The American Medical Association has attached an ominous new name to the country's raging obesity epidemic: It's a disease. More than 35 percent of U.S. adults and 17 percent of children and teens suffer from the condition.
The AMA on Tuesday formally classified obesity as a disease that requires a wide range of treatments. The shift is aimed toward getting doctors to treat it more seriously, rather than simply suggesting lifestyle changes, and could lead to more coverage from insurers and hopefully lower rates of obesity-related diseases
, according to The New York Times.
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"Recognizing obesity as a disease will help change the way the medical community tackles this complex issue that affects approximately one in three Americans," Dr. Patrice Harris of the AMA said in a statement. "The AMA is committed to improving health outcomes and is working to reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes, which are often linked to obesity."
U.S. obesity rates have increased by nearly 50 percent between 1997 and 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today, almost 30 percent of American adults are considered obese, while childhood obesity has more than doubled in the past 30 years.
In adults, obesity is defined as having a body mass index, or BMI, of 30 or higher. BMI is determined using weight and height. Obesity increases risks for serious conditions, including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and liver disease and osteoarthritis, which make up some of the leading causes of preventable death.
"The American Medical Association's recognition that obesity is a disease carries a lot of clout
," Samuel Klein, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, told USA Today.
Other groups had previously recognized obesity as a disease, but the AMA's strength sends a stronger community message.
While some experts are fearful that "sick" Americans will now seek quick fixes or medications — thus discouraging people from making better lifestyle choices — the declaration could help boost funding for future obesity research and lead to financial incentives for doctors who simply talk to patients about nutrition or exercise — time that isn't currently covered by insurance.
The AMA's support could also serve as an important step toward helping people get treatment. Most insurers don't cover obesity alone, and wouldn't provide for a nutritionist or a trainer, for example.
"We do cover treatment connected with a co-morbidity
," CNN quoted Don McLeod, a spokesman for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, as saying. "For example, if you have diabetes and obesity is aggravating the diabetes, we might cover obesity treatment as a way of treating the diabetes."
Preventing and treating obesity before it leads to more serious diseases could help defer the $147 billion to $210 billion spent annually in medical costs, Joe Nadglowski, president and CEO of the Obesity Action Coalition, told CNN.
Nadglowski has been working to introduce the Treat and Reduce Obesity Act in Congress, which has been reintroduced in the House Wednesday and will be re-introduced in the Senate on Wednesday afternoon, according to the office of Sen. Tom Carper, (D-Del.), one of the measure's sponsors. The bill would boost obesity treatment options for Medicare patients and increase the types of providers who can offer obesity counseling.
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