Perspective

Mexico Makes a Stand Against Obesity

April 12, 2015| By Carmelo Galante | Life | English

Region: Latin America

Obesity used to be considered almost exclusively a problem of developed countries. But recently rates of obesity in developing economies have increased abruptly. Indeed, obesity is now often linked to more deaths than malnutrition and some infectious diseases.

Mexico has experienced one of the fastest increases in the prevalence of excess weight and co-morbidities. The increase has occurred in all age groups across both rural and urban areas of the country and obesity is now recognised as a public health crisis.

Among women of 20 to 49 years of age, the prevalence of “overweight” (having a BMI of 25 or more) increased from 25% in 1988 to 35.3% in 2012; in the same cohort, rates of obesity (a BMI of 30 or more) increased from 9.5% to 35.2% over the same period.

Today, Mexico is second only to the US in having the highest rate of obesity in adults and holds first place in the world rankings for child obesity.

As discussed previously in our Outlook on Obesity series, obesity is a multifactorial disease. Sedentary lifestyles, high-calorie diets, a lack of nutritional counselling and genetics go some way to explaining the increased prevalence of obesity in Mexico.

Over the last decade, the middle class in Latin America has increased by 50%. It’s become common to eat in fast-food restaurants and to consume carbonated beverages. A fall in the relative price of soft drinks fuelled a 60% increase in consumption from 1989 to 2006 and the country is now the world’s largest consumer of soft drinks - an average of 163 litres per person per year.

Given obesity’s role as a risk factor in the development of chronic degenerative diseases, its impact on mortality and morbidity in Mexico is not surprising: the country is experiencing an epidemiological transition.

This is being reflected in a significant increase in the demand for health services. It’s estimated that the cost of obesity in 2008 was MXN$67 billion. Based on observed trends, it is projected to reach between MXN$151 billion and MXN$202 billion by 2017.

It’s a similar picture with mortality. From 1950 to 2000 the number of deaths from heart disease quadrupled (from 4% to 16%). Since 2004, diabetes has been the second most common cause of death, accounting for 85,055 deaths per year.

Studies show that obesity reduces life expectancy by an average of seven years. Should the obesity trend among Mexican children continue, for the first time new generations could experience a lower life expectancy at birth than their parents.

Despite low insurance penetration in Mexico, the impact of deaths from endocrine problems, metabolic disease and nutrition can be seen across individual and group life insurance claims. On average, 15% of all deaths of people between 46 and 75 years of age are attributable to these causes.

Tackling obesity requires a combined strategy not only from the government and the media but at home and in schools. Mexico is taking positive steps to try to control prevalence rates in the population, especially in children. Awareness campaigns have been conducted, nutritional advice offered and national obesity policies implemented, including the taxation of calorific food and drinks to discourage their consumption.

The fact that national health survey results show a slowdown in the upward trend in overweight and obesity in children and adolescents in Mexico since 2006 is greatly encouraging, yet the prevalence remains unacceptably high.

One saving grace may be that a percentage of the population has a high propensity to become overweight and obese for genetic reasons; thus, certain populations may have already reached the ceiling of this prevalence.

For now insurers must play their part in encouraging a preventive culture and continue to monitor trends in excess weight. Furthermore, underwriters must pay particular attention to obesity during the selection process if major claims deviations in their portfolios are to be avoided.

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