Study: Unhealthy Eating Is Top Risk for Early Death in U.S.

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An unhealthy diet is the leading risk factor for death, causing more than 500,000 U.S. deaths in 2016, according to a new study.

For the study, University of Washington researchers analyzed data on 333 diseases in every state from 1990-2016.

JAMA chart on early death risk and unhealthy diet eating food
Chart via JAMA

They implicated diet in 529,999 deaths from heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and other diseases in 2016. After diet, tobacco, high blood pressure, and obesity were the next biggest early death risks.

These findings have big implications for Latinos, who tend to struggle with local access to healthy food, according to a Salud America! research review.

“To an increasing degree, overweight, obesity, and sugary diets are driving up health care costs and are costing Americans years of healthy life,” said Dr. Christopher Murray, study coordinator at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, in a statement. “They are undermining progress toward better health.”

In Latino neighborhoods, fast food and corner stores outnumber supermarkets.

This results in less access to healthy food and overconsumption of unhealthy foods, and more risk of obesity.

“We must make it easier for Latino families to be able to choose affordable, healthy foods in their neighborhoods,” said Dr. Amelie G. Ramirez, director of Salud America! at UT Health San Antonio.

The study also examined death rates by states, and found sharp disparities.

The likelihood of early death for men and women ages 20-55 is highest in West Virginia, Mississippi, and Alabama.

The likelihood of early death is lowest in Minnesota, California, and New York.

Among other alarming findings:

  • Opioid use disorders rose from 11th to the 7th leading cause of disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) from 1990 to 2016.
  • While smoking is declining, it remained a top risk factor for DALYs in 34 states in 2016.
  • Major depression increased over 27% nationwide between 1990 and 2016. The burden due to anxiety disorders increased by about 31% in that span.

“Unless and until leaders of our health care system work together to mitigate risks, such as tobacco, alcohol, and diet, more Americans will die prematurely,” Murray said.

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