Boca Raton cardiologist Dr. Steven Babic recalled how intensely he worked on obesity-fighting initiatives while president of the Palm Beach County Medical Society years ago.
All the hard work didn’t pay, he lamented.
“We thought about adding calories next to menu items – it’s common practice out in California. Encouraging the schools to add back physical education. Have mall-walking programs in the morning,” he said. “The problem is getting worse, not better.”
An estimated 19 percent of Palm Beach County adults are obese, according to state statistics. Add in “overweight” and the percentage rises to 61 percent.
Babic isn’t sure whether the American Medical Association’s decision to label obesity a disease will shrink that number, but he’s hopeful. If insurance would cover interventions like Weight Watchers for more people, it would make a difference, he believes.
“My most effective group is Weight Watchers — they know all the tricks and they bring in that social element,” he said.
His obese patients typically suffer from high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and often, diabetes or pre-diabetes. When they do manage to lose weight – a tough proposition – he sees the results.
“You get them to lose weight and you can reduce the amounts of medications, and sometimes even get people off medications,” he said.
The alternative is a bad one.
“What we know is, when you get overweight, your insulin doesn’t work in the periphery, and you wind up with diabetes. Diabetes can affect your eyes, it can affect your heart, your kidneys, you get atherosclerosis,” or hardening of the arteries, he said. “The other thing you see is hypertension. There’s all kinds of other things associated with obesity. Breathing problems. Increased sleep apnea.”
He applauded the AMA for its stance. So, too, did Dr. Jay Epstein, president of the Florida Society of Anesthesiologists. Epstein said obese patients fare worse during surgery. He’s seen it repeatedly.
“They just don’t have the ability to compensate, because they are already compensating — they are breathing harder, their heart is working harder, their kidneys may not be working as well,” he said. “And then maybe they lose some blood and their blood pressure drops, or their oxygen level drops, and you find you get to dangerous vital signs much faster with an obese patient.”
He thought that referring to obesity as a disease may reduce the stigma.
“Whatever we can do to draw attention to the population, for the sake of health, maybe we do,” Epstein said.
Obesity: South Florida impact
Obesity has been associated with high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure and other serious chronic conditions. Data show that South Florida Medicare members are more likely to be burdened with these obesity-associated conditions.
Percent with high cholesterol:
South Florida: 54.83
Percent with diabetes:
South Florida: 26.77
Percent with high blood pressure:
South Florida: 54.83
Obesity-related diseases are among the leading causes of death of Floridians, according to 2012 data from the Bureau of Vital Statistics:
Heart disease-related deaths in Florida: 41,643
Stroke and aneurysms: 8,372
Kidney disease: 2,898
Hypertension and Hypertensive kidney disease: 1,944
Source: Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.