Obesity Health Problems: List, Risk Factors, Prevention & Treatment

Reviewed by: John Rabkin, MD

Behind smoking, obesity health problems are the second leading cause of preventable deaths world-wide. In addition, less severe obesity-related conditions can drastically reduce the obese individual’s quality of life. This page will explore:

Definition of Morbid Obesity and Whether You are at Risk for Obesity Health Problems

Before getting into the specific health risks associated with obesity, let's address the universal methods used to determine whether you're at risk.

The simplest method is to first calculate your body mass index (BMI).  If your BMI score is 40 or more, you are considered morbidly obese and have a high risk of developing the obesity health problems reviewed further down the page.

For a male of average height, a BMI of 40 or more means that they have an excess of 100 or more extra pounds on their frame; for a female of average height, a 40+ BMI means about 85 or more extra pounds.

An important consideration when interpreting your BMI score is your waist circumference.  Used in conjunction with your body mass index, waist circumference is a direct predictor of obesity-related disease.

For women, a waist circumference over 35 inches (88 cm) along with a body mass index of 25 or more (“overweight” classification) places you at a high risk for obesity health problems.  If your waist is over 35 inches, the higher your BMI, the higher your risks.

For men, high risk begins with a BMI of 25 along with a waist circumference of over 40 inches (102 cm).1

Additional factors that increase the overweight individual’s risk of obesity health problems include:2

  • Cigarette smoking
  • Family history of premature heart disease
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • High LDL-cholesterol ("bad" cholesterol)
  • Low HDL-cholesterol ("good" cholesterol)
  • High blood glucose (sugar)
  • High triglycerides
  • Physical inactivity
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Minor to Moderate Obesity Health Problems

While the obesity health problems in this section are usually not life-threatening, they can significantly impact your quality of life.  Regarding quality of life, the Journal of Public Health published a study demonstrating that the higher your obesity level, the lower your quality of life regardless of whether or not any diseases are present.3

Minor to moderate health risks associated with obesity include:4

Minor to Moderate Obesity Health Problems
Definitions Relationship to Obesity
References: A, B1, B2, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S
Arthritis Inflammation of a joint. When joints are inflamed they can develop stiffness, warmth, swelling, redness and pain. There are over 100 types of arthritis.

For every 2 pound increase in weight, the risk of developing arthritis increases by 9 to 13%.A
Asthma
Chronic inflammation of the bronchial tubes (airways) that causes swelling and narrowing (constriction) of the airways. The result is difficulty breathing.
Obesity as a cause of asthma is up for debate.B1 However, weight loss has been shown to improve at least one asthma outcome for those who are both asthmatic and obese.B2
Carpal tunnel syndrome
A type of compression neuropathy (nerve damage) caused by compression and irritation of the median nerve in the wrist. The nerve is compressed within the carpal tunnel, a bony canal in the palm side of the wrist that provides passage for the median nerve to the hand. The irritation of the median nerve is specifically due to pressure from the transverse carpal ligament.
Body mass index is an independent risk factor for carpal tunnel syndrome.C
Depression
An illness that involves the body, mood, and thoughts, that affects the way a person eats and sleeps, the way one feels about oneself, and the way one thinks about things. A depressive disorder is not the same as a passing blue mood. It is not a sign of personal weakness or a condition that can be wished away. People with a depressive disease cannot merely "pull themselves together" and get better. Without treatment, symptoms can last for weeks, months, or years.
Obese individuals have been shown to have a higher incidence of depression.D
Dermatitis Inflammation of the skin, either due to direct contact with an irritating substance, or to an allergic reaction. Symptoms of dermatitis include redness, itching, and in some cases blistering.

As body mass index increases, so does the prevalence of dermatitis herpetiformis and psoriasis.E
Effectiveness of oral contraceptives
How likely birth control pills are to prevent pregnancy.
Overweight women are 60 to 70% more likely to get pregnant while on the birth-control pill.F
Gall bladder disease (cholecystitis) Inflammation of the gallbladder, a complication of gallstones which are formed by cholesterol and pigment (bilirubin) in bile. (Bile is produced in the liver and stored in the gallbladder). Cholecystitis is frequently associated with infection in the gallbladder. The higher your body mass index, the higher your risk of developing gall bladder disease.G
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Commonly referred to as GERD or acid reflux, is a condition in which the liquid content of the stomach regurgitates (backs up or refluxes) into the esophagus. The liquid can inflame and damage the lining (cause esophagitis) of the esophagus although visible signs of inflammation occur in a minority of patients.
Overweight people are 50% more likely to have GERD than normal-weight people, while those who are obese are over 200% more likely to suffer from GERD.H
Gout
A disease that results from an overload of uric acid in the body. This overload of uric acid leads to the formation of tiny crystals of urate that deposit in tissues of the body, especially the joints. When crystals form in the joints it causes recurring attacks of joint inflammation (arthritis). Chronic gout can also lead to deposits of hard lumps of uric acid in and around the joints and may cause joint destruction, decreased kidney function, and kidney stones.
An obese person is 4 times more likely to develop gout than an individual with a normal body weight.I
Hypertension (high blood pressure)
A repeatedly elevated blood pressure exceeding 140 over 90 mmHg -- a systolic pressure above 140 with a diastolic pressure above 90. Chronic hypertension is a "silent" condition that can cause blood vessel changes in the back of the eye (retina), abnormal thickening of the heart muscle, kidney failure, and brain damage.
Hypertension and obesity are significantly correlated, and the risk of hypertension increases as body mass index goes up.J
Infertility
The diminished ability or the inability to conceive and have offspring. Infertility is also defined in specific terms as the failure to conceive after a year of regular intercourse without contraception.
Obesity is associated with both irregular menstrual cycles and infertility.K
Liver disease
The liver is a large organ in the upper right abdomen that aids in digestion and removes waste products from the blood. Liver disease includes the following conditions:
  • Cirrhosis, or scarring of the liver
  • Inflammation (hepatitis) from infectious (hepatitis B, hepatitis C) or non-infectious causes (chemical or autoimmune hepatitis)
  • Tumors, benign and malignant (liver cancer)
  • Metabolic disorders
Obesity increases the risk for liver disease and liver cancer.L
Osteoarthritis
Type of arthritis caused by inflammation, breakdown, and eventual loss of cartilage in the joints. Also known as degenerative arthritis.
For every one point increase in body mass index, the odds of rapid cartilage loss increase by 11%.M
Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)


A hormonal problem that causes women to have a variety of symptoms, including:
  • abnormal hair growth and distribution
  • acne
  • dandruff
  • elevated blood pressure
  • excess hair growth
  • high cholesterol levels
  • infertility
  • irregular or no menstrual periods
  • oily skin
  • skin discolorations
  • weight gain
Any of the above symptoms and signs may be absent in PCOS, with the exception of irregular or no menstrual periods. All women with PCOS will have irregular or no menstrual periods. Women who have PCOS do not regularly ovulate; that is, they do not release an egg every month. This is why they do not have regular periods.
Obesity increases the prevalence and severity of PCOS.N
Pseudotumor cerebri
Increased pressure within the brain in the absence of a tumor. Symptoms may include headache, nausea, vomiting, pulsating intracranial noises, singing in the ears, double vision, loss of visual accuracy, and even blindness. Obese individuals are at an increased risk for pseudotumor cerebri.O
Sleep apnea
The temporary stoppage of breathing during sleep, often resulting in daytime sleepiness.
The higher the apnea-hypopnea index (AHI), the more likely sleep apnea patients are to be obese.P
Sleep deprivation
Sleep deprivation As body mass index decreases, sleep duration increases.Q
Stress urinary incontinence (SUI)
The unpredictable and involuntary loss of urine caused by weakened sphincter muscles (the muscles that surround the urethra) and often triggered by an event such as a sneeze or cough.

Increase in body mass index is directly correlated with an increased risk for developing SUI.R
Venous stasis disease
Loss of proper function of the veins in the legs that would normally carry blood back toward the heart.
Obesity is directly correlated with venous stasis disease, and obese people rarely see the disease improve without weight loss.S
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Major and Life-Threatening Obesity Health Problems

According to the Surgeon General, individuals with a body mass index over 30 have between a 50% and 100% increased risk of premature death from all causes compared with those at a normal weight.

The World Health Organization has similar findings, linking obesity with a doubled risk of premature death, many of which are directly related to the following:

Obesity Health Problems % of Bariatric Surgery Patients
Asthma
82% improved or resolved
Cardiovascular disease
82% risk reduction
Death
89% reduction in 5-year death rate
Depression
55% improved or resolved
Diabetes (type 2)
83% resolved
Dyslipidemia hypercholesterolemia
63% resolved
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
72 to 98% resolved
Hypertension (high blood pressure)
52 to 92% resolved
Metabolic syndrome
80% resolved
Migraines 57% resolved
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
90% improved steatosis; 37% resolution of inflammation; 20% resolution of fibrosis on repeat biopsy
Orthopedic problems or degenerative joint disease
41 to 76% resolved
Polycystic ovarian syndrome
78% resolution of hirsuitism; 100% resolution of menstrual dysfunction
Pseudotumor cerebri
96% resolved
Sleep apnea
74 to 98% resolved
Stress urinary incontinence
44 to 88% resolved
Venous stasis disease 95% resolved
NOTE: Results vary greatly by procedure. See the Buchwald, et al meta analysis paper for a procedure-based and much more thorough analysis.
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Prevention and Treatment of Obesity Health Problems

Official Position Statements About Bariatric Surgery

Several reputable and trustworthy non-profit and governmental organizations have endorsed bariatric surgery for the right patients. Organizations publishing official statements about weight loss surgery include...

  • American Diabetes Association (ADA)
  • American Heart Association (AHA)
  • Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS)
  • International Diabetes Federation (IDF)
  • National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI)
  • National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK)
  • The Obesity Society

Click here for exerpts from each statement along with links to the complete published documents.

Not surprisingly, the primary preventive measure for obesity health problems is weight loss.

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, an overweight person losing just 10% of their body weight will lower their risk of health problems.

You have three weight loss options to prevent or treat obesity health problems:

  1. Diet, exercise and behavior change
  2. Prescription medications
  3. Weight loss surgery

Diet, Exercise and Behavior Change

This first step is an obvious one that you’ve probably heard or tried more times than you’d like to remember.  But it’s a necessary first step that, if achieved, will be the most rewarding and healthy weight loss option.

For a deeper exploration of diet and exercise habits and other obesity contributors, see our Causes of Obesity page.

If you are unable to lose weight and keep it off on your own, research has shown patients to be more open to losing weight under a doctor’s supervision.5 Consider working with your primary care physician and asking for referrals to a dietitian, psychologist and even a personal trainer to assist in your efforts.

Prescription Medications

If you have or are at risk for one of the obesity health problems reviewed above and have a body mass index of 27 or more, your doctor may prescribe one of several weight loss medications.  The most effective diet pill for you would most likely fall into one of two FDA-approved categories:

  1. Appetite suppressants (sibutramine, phentermine, diethylpropion and phendimetrazine) make you feel full or lower your appetite.
  2. Lipase inhibitors (orlistat) reduce the body’s ability to absorb fat.

Weight Loss Surgery for Treating Obesity Health Problems

Unfortunately, even with the help of professionals and prescriptions, many of us just have too many factors working against us to allow significant and sustained weight loss:

  • Obesity and genetics: hunger-inducing hormones along with the weight our bodies naturally “want” to be, also known as the Metabolic Set Point Theory
  • The prevalence and marketing of unhealthy food choices
  • Our demanding, time-strained lifestyle
  • Our choices (intentionally last on the list)

If you have a body mass index of 35 or more and have been unsuccessful in your past weight loss attempts, you may be a candidate for weight loss surgery (also known as bariatric surgery).

In addition to helping you to lose a substantial amount of weight quickly, bariatric surgery can have a significant impact on obesity health problems.  When evaluating the effect of surgery on obesity health issues, research has found the following:6

Obesity Health Problems % of Bariatric Surgery Patients
Asthma
82% improved or resolved
Cardiovascular disease
82% risk reduction
Death
89% reduction in 5-year death rate
Depression
55% improved or resolved
Diabetes (type 2)
83% resolved
Dyslipidemia hypercholesterolemia
63% resolved
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
72 to 98% resolved
Hypertension (high blood pressure)
52 to 92% resolved
Metabolic syndrome
80% resolved
Migraines 57% resolved
Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease
90% improved steatosis; 37% resolution of inflammation; 20% resolution of fibrosis on repeat biopsy
Orthopedic problems or degenerative joint disease
41 to 76% resolved
Polycystic ovarian syndrome
78% resolution of hirsuitism; 100% resolution of menstrual dysfunction
Pseudotumor cerebri
96% resolved
Sleep apnea
74 to 98% resolved
Stress urinary incontinence
44 to 88% resolved
Venous stasis disease 95% resolved
NOTE: Results vary greatly by procedure. See the Buchwald, et al meta analysis paper for a procedure-based and much more thorough analysis.

Despite the positive effect of bariatric surgery on weight and obesity health problems, it is not the right solution for everyone.  In addition to preparing for and going through with surgery, big sacrifices must be made in life after weight loss surgery for patients to be successful.

You have two options for determining whether weight loss surgery could be an option for you:

  1. See our Bariatric Treatment page to get an initial understanding of whether surgery could be an option for you.
  2. Most qualified surgeons offer free seminars and/or free one-on-one consultations that teach you about your options and their office's specific results. Click here to find and schedule a free in-person seminar or one-on-one consultation with a qualified weight loss surgeon in your area.
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References for Obesity Health Problems

  1. Classification of Overweight and Obesity by BMI, Waist Circumference,
    and Associated Disease Risks. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute - Obesity Education Initiative. Available at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/obesity/lose_wt/bmi_dis.htm
  2. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute - Obesity Education Initiative.  Information for Patients and the Public.  Available at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/
    heart/obesity/lose_wt/risk.htm.
  3. Jia, Lubetkin, J Public Health 2005;27(2):156-64 (AHRQ grant HS13770)
  4. Definitions courtesy of MedTerms, available at: http://www.medterms.com
  5. E. Logue, K. Sutton, D. Jarjoura and W. Smucker Department of Family Practice, Summa Health System, Akron, OH. Obesity management in primary care: assessment of readiness to change among 284 family practice patients. Jour Am Board of Fam Medicine. Vol 13, Issue 3 164-171, 2000.
  6. Stacy A Brethauer, Bipan Chand and Philip R Schauer. Risks and benefits of bariatric surgery: current evidence. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine 2006; 73(11):993-1007; doi:10.3949/ccjm.73.11.993.

[Last editorial review/modification of this page: 6/7/2013]

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