Each year the health-care system spends millions of dollars treating the consequences of obesity including cardiovascular conditions, orthopedic problems, asthma, allergies, diabetes, cancer and arthritis. Yet virtually nothing is spent on managing obesity itself – a simple reflection of the fact that society neither realizes nor appreciates the significance of obesity as a severe health condition.
While researchers blame the current obesity epidemic on inactivity, overeating and genetic predisposition, little is known about why obesity increases the risk for high blood pressure, diabetes or cancer. Hamilton is now one of the few centres in the world that will begin looking for an answer. Dr. Arya Sharma, an internationally recognized expert on obesity recently recruited from Germany, is building a team of researchers at Hamilton Health Sciences to find scientific answers to this complex medical condition and new methods of dealing with obesity and its complications.
“Everyone needs to recognize obesity as a major health concern requiring medical intervention,” said Sharma, Associate Staff Member, Department of Medicine, Cardiology and Endocrinology division, Hamilton Health Sciences, and Professor of Medicine. “It is simply not enough to blame the patient.”
Society commonly associates obesity with inactivity and overeating – an oversimplification that perpetuates public perceptions of obesity as a self-inflicted illness. But asking individuals to modify their lifestyle is too simple an answer to a problem affecting more than 50 per cent of the population. While lifestyle modification including reducing fat and simple carbohydrate intake and increasing physical activity may lead to weight loss in the short term (weeks and months) numerous studies have documented that lifestyle education and counseling rarely lead to a long-term reduction in body weight. The long-term success is clearly higher when medications or surgery are added to the therapy. However, these treatments are rarely prescribed and often not covered by the health-care system.
Sharma suggests most physicians tend to ignore obesity since they don’t have enough knowledge about managing obesity or enough treatment options to offer patients.
“Just telling an obese individual to lose weight is like telling a patient with depression to cheer up,” said Sharma. “It’s just not a realistic treatment method.”
Recent studies show that the regulation of body weight is a very complex bodily function, perhaps even more complex than the regulation of blood pressure or body temperature. Scientists like Sharma are just beginning to understand how this regulation occurs. His research will focus on determining why abdominal obesity is associated with heart disease and how fat cells affect metabolism and the functioning of blood vessels.
Sharma intends to take the treatment of obesity as far as medicine has gone with other medical conditions. Recent, long-awaited funding allocations signal a readiness to accept obesity as more than an aesthetic condition and the need to explore treatment options.
“Today, there are dozens of medications prescribed to patients to manage blood pressure or type 2 diabetes,” said Sharma. “There is no reason why we shouldn’t be able to offer patients safe, cost-efficient and effective treatments for obesity in the future.”