The Need for Increased Obesity Research Funding

The Need for Increased Obesity Research Funding

The Obesity Society urges the government to double obesity research funding so that we can respond effectively to the unprecedented public health crisis represented by obesity.

Obesity is a health crisis of epic proportions. The health burden of obesity, measured by quality-adjusted life-years lost per US adult, has surpassed that of smoking to become the most serious, preventable cause of death in the US. About 34% of adults in the US have obesity, up from 31% in 1999 and about 15% in the years 1960 through 1980. Obesity increases the risk of death from all causes for both men and women at all ages and in all racial and ethnic groups. Obesity leads to social stigmatization and discrimination, which decreases quality of life dramatically. The chronic diseases that result from obesity costs the country more than $150 billion in weight-related medical bills each year.

Effective treatment improves outcomes, yet we have few effective options to offer patients. Diet and exercise–even when used in conjunction with pharmacotherapy–do not provide sufficient, sustainable weight loss for long-term health benefits for all patients. Research suggests that one-quarter to two-thirds of patients will not respond adequately to such treatment. Currently only one drug is FDA-approved for long term weight loss. Surgery, which can be effective, is an option for only a portion of people with obesity and financial factors limit its utilization.

We lack effective treatment and prevention options because we do not fully understand the mechanics of obesity. The extent of our ignorance about the causes of obesity and effective ways to treat it is vast, as evidenced by the development of obesity drugs that cannot meet FDA Advisory panel standards and skyrocketing obesity rates over the last two decades despite massive investment in media outreach and government programs. In short, we simply don't have a robust understanding of the myriad causes of obesity, what works for the treatment of obesity, or why it does or does not work.

In order to increase our understanding of the causes and treatment of obesity, we need a major increase in research dollars. In 2010, NIH awarded grants totaling $5.8 billion to fund cancer research and $2.1 billion for cardiovascular research. In the same time period, a fraction of those amounts, $0.8 billion was awarded to fund obesity research. Obesity is disproportionately underfunded regarding NIH and other grants. Not only must this funding inequity be reversed, but given the increased number of Americans entering their sixties and seventies with their higher rate of obesity-related co-morbidities, funding levels should be increased. Only with increased funding can we expect to address the impact obesity will have on the public health in the near future.

New obesity research dollars need to be spent across a variety of innovative areas, including but not limited to the impact of infectious agents, environmental chemicals and endocrine disruptors, sleep deprivation, ambient temperature, age at first pregnancy, intrauterine and intergenerational factors, epigenetics, factors within individuals associated with inappropriate behaviors and social factors associated with unhealthy behaviors. Much of the past research efforts on obesity area focused on large- scale intervention studies using variations of diet and exercise. These provide only incremental progress in our understanding of the disease of obesity. Innovative thinking is needed for the future.