Forget coronavirus, obesity is the real epidemic of the 21st century

Obesity is the fifth greatest cause of death worldwide. 70% of those suffering from obesity may also suffer from other diseases such as diabetes, cancer, hypertension and high blood fat levels.

An eight-month-old boy weighing 20 kg. sits at a clinic for the obese in Bogota, Colombia (photo credit: JOHN VIZCAINO/REUTERS)
An eight-month-old boy weighing 20 kg. sits at a clinic for the obese in Bogota, Colombia
(photo credit: JOHN VIZCAINO/REUTERS)
Before the world had the “benefit” of learning about the coronavirus, and the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic, our lives were entirely different.
We were forced for a time, for a year and even two years, to put aside all other world problems and concentrate our efforts on finding a solution to the new problem. And now, after a year, we can already dream about the end of the pandemic. Humanity, in an enormous and joint effort, is approaching victory. While it is still early to open the champagne we can start smiling.
To smile, but not for a long time, because soon enough we will have to go back to addressing the epidemic we set aside because of the coronavirus, and that will concern us a great deal after the coronavirus. We are of course referring to the obesity epidemic. Yes, that is the word – “epidemic,” and the WHO defined it as “an epidemic of the twenty-first century.”
Obesity is the fifth greatest cause of death worldwide. 70% of those suffering from obesity may also suffer from other diseases such as diabetes, cancer, hypertension and high blood fat levels. Studies show that obesity is responsible for more than 80% of type 2 diabetes cases, 35% of heart failure cases and 55% of hypertension cases.
Even with respect to coronavirus, and to at-risk populations, obesity is mentioned as a very significant risk factor. So let’s take our eyes off the coronavirus for a while, soon it will no longer be with us, obesity – will be.
So where do we stand? We are approaching worldwide levels, so that the problem is both global and national. More than half of the Israelis and 35% of the children in Israel are overweight, and 27% suffer from morbid obesity which is related to chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart diseases. These are pre-coronavirus figures. It goes without saying that over the past year the situation worsened from one lockdown to the next.
According to forecasts based on obesity among children in Israel, every third child will be diabetic by the age of 50.
There is also a greater risk of suffering from another disease with the increase in life expectancy – Alzheimer’s, one of the common forms of dementia.
A study published in 2016 that included 2.3 million persons, about 100,000 of them with dementia, found that people with type 2 diabetes have a 60% greater risk of developing dementia in general and Alzheimer’s disease in particular.
The relationship between diabetes and Alzheimer’s has been studied intensively. It is strong and clear, and has even resulted in some of the additional names given to Alzheimer’s disease: “diabetes of the brain” and “type 3 diabetes.” At the basis of the relationship are two hormones, insulin and leptin, or more accurately resistance (insensitivity) to both. The same problem that is so familiar in people who have diabetes also reaches the brain and causes metabolism disruptions that send a green light to Alzheimer’s disease.
What is surprising here is that historically the brain belongs to the group of organs whose functioning is not insulin-dependent. In fact insulin is found in the brain and its high concentration characterizes two very significant areas in the brain: the hippocampus that is responsible for memory and the hypothalamus that is responsible for regulating our eating habits.
The bad news is that for those who have already been diagnosed with dementia very little can be done to improve their condition and to stop the deterioration.
However, there is also good news: If we know and understand the risk factors, we have a way of actually preventing this terrible disease, a disease in which we lose our personality. If the road to Alzheimer’s disease can begin with diabetes, and diabetes follows obesity, then the required change should be quite clear.
There are those who even with obesity, and even with illness that comes as a direct continuation, will still want to blame genetics. But in this case, contrary to the color of our eyes the genetic component does not have exclusivity. The environment, in other words our daily behavior, is to a large extent the determining factor. Our lifestyle habits can collaborate with our less successful genetics or can put up a fight and come out winning. The decision whether to step up to the challenge is in our hands.

The writer is a lecturer in the chemical engineering department of SCE – the Sami Shamoon College of Engineering, Ashdod campus.