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Three hundred women attended a health fair and poster session at Prentice Women's Hospital Thursday to learn more about new initiatives and research in women's health.

'Healthy obesity' may not last

by Megan Dawson
May 20, 2014


Megan Dawson/MEDILL

Janice Gersteif (left) and Eileen Medow (right) live near Prentice Women's Hospital and attended the women's health fair  together to learn about Alzheimer's Disease, dementia and obesity.     

“There is no such thing as healthy obesity,” said Mercedes Carnethon, associate professor in the Department of Preventative Medicine at Northwestern University and director of the department’s Division of Epidemiology. “Obese adults do not stay free from risk factors over time” involving diabetes or high blood pressure, she said.

Obesity is determined by body mass index (BMI), a number calculated by using height and weight. An adult who has a BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese. Obesity-related conditions include heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, some of the leading causes of preventable death, according to the CDC.

Most people who are obese have unhealthy changes in metabolism such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and high blood sugar, which puts them at risk for developing Type 2 diabetes or having a heart attack or stroke, according to Harvard Medical School reports posted online.

People who manage to avoid these metabolic changes are considered “metabolically healthy obese,” according to Carnethon. But the healthy episodes might not last, she said.

Carnethon spoke at the National Women’s Health Week Forum on Thursday at Prentice Women’s Hospital. In her speech, “Metabolically Healthy Obese: Reality or Fantasy?” Carnethon presented studies showing obese patients who are as metabolically healthy as normal weight individuals. But the studies didn’t track the development of risk factors over time.

“Metabolically healthy obesity is a transitional state,” Carnethon said. “The initial ‘healthy state’ gives way to the later development of risk factors.” These risk factors surface can surface in about 10 years, according to Carnethon.

Preceding Carnethon’s talk, the hospital offered a women’s health fair, a one-stop shop for women to learn about health care with clinical service information stations from a variety of different health specialists and physicians.

One informational booth featured an interactive questionnaire about ovarian cancer.

“I wasn’t really prepared to answer them,” said Gladys Soto, a questionnaire participant. “She asked me, ‘What are the symptoms?’ and I’m like, ‘Well I don’t know the symptoms!’ I thought that was very interesting.”

Soto, an administrative assistant for a physician at Prentice Women’s Hospital, found out about the event through one of the physicians she works.

“Since I’m getting to be 50, I’m starting to wonder what it’s feeling like,” Soto said. “I have some of the symptoms of hot flashes and all that, and I don’t know what else is involved with menopause. I haven’t really seen my physician to really talk to her about it, but I sure will when I have my physical with her!”

In addition, a poster session exhibited new initiatives by local health care providers including group clinic sessions for HIV-positive pregnant women to receive prenatal and postnatal care. Research from the University of Illinois at Chicago showed the correlation between hot flashes and memory loss during menopause.

“I’m particularly interested in the programs on Alzheimer’s and dementia,” said event guest Eileen Medow. “My husband passed away recently and he suffered from dementia.”

“Somebody just left their cane in my car and they never called me,” said Janice Gersteif, Medow’s friend and event companion. “That’s real Dementia. She’s walking without her cane!”

“I’ve always been interested in health and body,” Gersteif said. “I think the subject (of obesity) is fascinating,” she said.

After the health fair and poster session, guests ate lunch and gathered in a conference room where keynote speaker Mercedes Carnethon addressed the audience.

“Obesity solutions still need to reach the highest risk populations,” Carnethon said. Some health campaigns advertise options such as group fitness classes or grocery shopping at Whole Foods, which are not feasible for certain socioeconomic groups, Carnethon said.

“Rising rates of obesity in the population have shifted the public gaze towards normalizing obesity,” Carnethon said. “Rigorous and objective research needs to be carried out to describe the reality of metabolically healthy obesity.”