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Perspective

Obesity in Asia: Putting the Problem in Perspective

May 14, 2015| By Wan Siang Cheong | Life | English

Region: Asia Pacific

Our Outlook on Obesity blog series explores different risk aspects of a growing, global concern for insurers. Although some of the lowest prevalence rates of obesity are found in Asia-Pacific countries, economic and social factors leave the region as a whole experiencing alarming rates of increase.

Let’s look at some numbers. Bangladesh has the lowest global rate of obesity (BMI > 30kg/m2) at 1.1%. Vietnam (1.6%) and India (1.9%) follow and contrast with Australia where the 25% obesity rate is not far off the US level.

But the wider trend for weight gain is more worrying. China’s adult combined overweight and obesity prevalence has more than doubled in the past 30 years. Malaysia saw a threefold increase over the same period while in Vietnam rates doubled in the decade leading up to 2002.

The accepted WHO definitions of overweight and obesity based on Body Mass Index (BMI) do not even correlate strongly to Asian people. Because Asians tend to have higher amounts of abdominal fat at lower BMIs, the accepted cut-offs could actually be insufficient to identify Asian individuals with a high risk of obesity-related morbidity and mortality.

Either way, there’s no doubt that obesity-associated diseases, such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease and diabetes, are on the rise across Asia.

Because the rising prevalence of obesity has been more pronounced in recent years, it’s difficult to predict how obesity is going to affect life and health insurance companies operating in Asia.

The effects on mortality products may be minimal in the long run, as the detrimental effects will be offset by better access to healthcare and improving medical technology. What is clear is that use of healthcare services by overweight and obese people is significantly higher. With regard to Critical Illness, the expectation is that the rise in obesity will directly influence the number of claims for obesity-related risks, including diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers.

For underwriters, careful selection should ensure that overweight and obese applicants are appropriately rated for their mortality and morbidity risk, or filtered out. The real difficulty lies in identifying individuals who will become obese in the future.

Obesity rates in some Asian countries have yet to reach the extreme prevalence observed elsewhere in the world and morbidly obese applicants remain rare. But the reality is that many people in Asia are unaware of the health consequences of obesity.

Fast food, considered cheap and convenient in the West, is conferred different status by some in Asia where overweight has a traditional association with prosperity. Economic development has allowed some households to indulge in energy-dense foods and enjoy luxury entertainments that encourage sedentary lifestyles.

Hopefully, with more media coverage, in conjunction with health awareness initiatives, Asia can curb the problem before it gets out of control.

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