COVID-19 has shown that it’s not just kids at risk from obesity
Data shows it is people in their 50s and 60s who are most likely to be overweight, with around seven in ten people in this age group classified as either overweight or obese.
Our Associate Director for Healthy Ageing, Alison Giles, says the COVID-19 pandemic has given the jolt we need to tackle this crisis but the over 50s should not be left behind in government policy.
Obesity is a complex problem that weighs heavy on our nation. The number of adults in England who have a weight classified as obese has almost doubled since the late 1990s, and our waistlines have grown considerably over roughly the same period, by around three inches for women and an extra two inches for men. At last, it seems, the government is waking up to the consequences.
If coronavirus is the ‘worst public health crisis for a generation’ then obesity is the worst public health crisis of our lifetimes. It’s the driver for myriad life-threatening conditions including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer, bowel cancer and stroke. It costs the lives of millions every year and hits the pockets of taxpayers hard. People living with obesity report experiencing stigma regularly, due to a lack of understanding of the condition. Boris Johnson’s new drive to tackle the condition is welcome – and has the potential to change lives.
But it’s vital that the government’s new initiatives don’t simply target kids – as past interventions often have. Data shows it is people in their 50s and 60s who most likely to be overweight, with around seven in ten people in this age group classified as either overweight or obese. A significant and increasing proportion of this group are also managing multiple health conditions and mobility problems, many of which are preventable and caused or exacerbated by being overweight. For people from poorer backgrounds, health prospects are much worse.
Of course we’ve known about the dangers of obesity for some time – the threat to health and quality of life, the burgeoning demand on the NHS as rates of associated diseases spiral. The tipping point is the fact that obesity and COVID-19, the data shows, are lethally interlinked, with obesity cited as a major risk factor in severe cases of COVID-19. Add in age and the many underlying health conditions related to obesity and the severity of the disease skyrockets.
Given that COVID-19 looks set to stay for the foreseeable future, with a growing body of evidence suggesting that immunity to COVID-19 is short-lived, building our population’s resilience to future recurrences or mutations of this terrible virus must be a priority. Supporting people to maintain a healthy weight – especially in mid and later life when risk of severe COVID-19 is greater – is more important now than ever.
Banning junk food ads before the watershed could make a real difference to kids – but does nothing for the adults still watching TV after 9pm.
It’s taken the near-death experience of the Prime Minister – himself in his 50s – for the government to wake up to the challenge that ‘Britain must get fitter’. Having reportedly lost two stone since his recovery from COVID-19, Boris Johnson is in many ways a good case study of the remarkable changes people in mid-life can still make to their weight and health prospects, given the right impetus and supported by healthy environments.
So as Johnson turns his good intentions into policy, he must look to help people get fitter across the life course. A focus on tackling childhood obesity is paramount, but we also need targeted support for people at older ages. Banning junk food ads before the watershed could make a real difference to kids – but does nothing for the adults still watching TV after 9pm. These individuals, if helped now to make changes, stand a chance of preventing or delaying many of the various life-limiting conditions that being overweight will inevitably bring as they move into later life. Many of them are also parents and grandparents who will have a direct impact on the health behaviors and habits of the youngest in our society.
Personal responsibility is often cited in arguments around obesity, but it’s only part of the story. To create sustained change, we must create environments that support people to eat healthily, to be more active, make healthy choices easier and unhealthy ones harder. And we need to do this at all levels – in our communities, in our restaurants, in our workplaces, our supermarkets and on our TVs. A piece in the Lancet by a number of prominent academics likened targeting individuals with weight loss programmes, without changing the environments that cue excess energy consumption, to ‘treating people for cholera then sending them back to communities supplied with contaminated water.’
This pandemic has given us the jolt we need on obesity, new impetus for why we need to address this public health crisis and a more urgent deadline. As the Prime Minister rises to the challenge, he must not leave behind over 50s like him.