Can obesity kill you? Discover the effects of obesity on the body

Written by: Professor Barbara McGowan
Published: | Updated: 26/11/2020
Edited by: Cal Murphy

We all know that obesity can have serious consequences for a person’s health. But what exactly are the effects of obesity? And could it even be fatal? Leading London endocrinologist Professor Barbara McGowan offers her expertise into the world of obesity.


Can obesity kill you?

The simple answer is YES – there are about 2.8 million adults per year around the world that die from being overweight or obese. Indeed, being overweight and obese is the fifth highest risk of death globally. Most of this burden really comes from the resulting diabetes, from ischemic heart disease associated with being overweight and obese, and, of course, the increased risk of cancer associated with being obese.

There is a study called the Framingham Heart Study, and this shows that if you are obese and a non-smoker, women lose seven years of life and men lose about six years of life, but if you’re obese and a smoker, both women and men lose at least 13 years of life. That’s quite significant.


How does obesity affect the body?

Obesity can virtually affect every organ of your body. We can try and look at the complications of obesity by splitting them up into three sections—metabolic, mechanical, and mental.

If we start with the metabolic complications first, obesity is associated with a very high risk of type 2 diabetes, which leads to a real disease burden. Obesity increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, including coronary artery disease, the risk of strokes, the risk of heart attacks, dyslipidaemia (abnormalities with cholesterol), and the risk of heart failure.

Obesity is associated with an increased risk of gallstones, fatty liver, which can progress to fibrosis and cirrhosis, and of course, it may then lead to the need for liver transplants. Currently, alcoholic liver disease is the major cause for liver transplants, but obesity, fatty liver disease and progression of that is thought to be probably the most common cause for a liver transplant in the years to come. Obesity also affects respiratory disease. We see increased rates of obstructive sleep apnoea in our patient population and also exacerbation of asthma.

The risk of cancer, such as breast, colorectal, endometrial, ovarian, and pancreatic cancers, amongst many others, is also increased in our population.

If we then move on to the mechanical complications of obesity, of course, we know that an increased weight is associated with problems with lower back pain and osteoarthritis.

Finally, thinking about mental illness, which, of course, is a really, really important part of this triad of complications, we know that many of our patients with obesity have depression and anxiety. Of course, this burden of disease really needs to be tackled and sometimes it’s very much ignored when doctors manage their patients.

If you are overweight or obese and are looking for help losing weight, you should see your GP or contact an experienced endocrinologist. You can find some of Professor McGowan's top tips for losing weight and maintaining weight loss here.

By Professor Barbara McGowan
Endocrinology, diabetes & metabolism

Professor Barbara McGowan is a London-based leading expert in endocrinology. Her special interests include weight loss, bariatric medicine, polycystic ovarian syndrome, thyroid problems, infertility, adrenal disease and pituitary disorders

After graduating with a MA in Biochemistry in 1988, Professor McGowan worked in the pharmaceutical industry, and eventually went on to study medicine at the Royal Free Hospital, London, and graduated in 1998 with merits. Thanks to her research into the role of gut hormones and other neuropeptides in appetite control, she earned a PhD from Imperial College in 2007.  

Professor McGowan was appointed a clinical lecturer at Imperial College in 2007 and in 2009 as a consultant and honorary lecturer in diabetes and endocrinology at Guy’s and St Thomas’s, London. She now leads the obesity bariatric service at Guy’s and St Thomas Hospital and is a general medicine physician.

Outside of her clinic she is dedicated to research, particularly in the areas of gut hormones and remission of type 2 diabetes post-bariatric surgery. Her work has been recognised by NIHR/RCP who awarded her for her 'outstanding contribution to research' in 2016. 

She has published extensively in high-impact journals, including The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine. She practices at Guy's Hospital and BMI Bishops Wood while also serving as an honorary professor at King's College London. 

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