Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

The Myth of Normal Weight

Don’t miss Paul Campos’s commentary on overweight and obesity in today’s NYT.  Responding to the latest report by Katherine Flegal of CDC and coworkers, Campos points out that

If the government were to redefine normal weight as one that doesn’t increase the risk of death, then about 130 million of the 165 million American adults currently categorized as overweight and obese would be re-categorized as normal weight instead.

The report by Flegal et al., published this week in JAMA, is a meta-analysis of 97 studies on body-mass index (BMI) and mortality.  This new analysis found that mortality risks for the “overweight” (BMI 25-29.9) was 6% lower than that for “normal” BMI (18.5-24.9) individuals.  And those in the “grade 1 obesity” category, with BMIs from 30 to 34.9, were at no higher risk of dying than those in the so-called normal range.   Only those with BMIs of 35 and above were at elevated risk of dying, and then only by 29%.

In other words, people who are overweight or obese generally live longer than those who are in the normal range.  Only extreme obesity is associated with an increased probability of early death.

Flegal and colleagues already demonstrated most of these findings using administrative data, in an article appearing in JAMA in 2005.  There, they reported no excess mortality among people labeled “overweight” by BMI standards, and that about three-quarters of excess mortality among the “obese” was accounted for by those with BMIs above 35.

What’s notable about this week’s publication is that it has attracted the attention of some heavy hitters in the media.  Pam Belluck covered the JAMA report for the NYT.  Although her article seems more interested in propping up the myths about the dangers of fat than in conveying the main points of the new analysis, Belluck does acknowledge that some health professionals would like to see the definition of normal revised.

Dan Childs’s story for ABC News gives a clear picture of the findings, and allows the obesity warriors, like David Katz of Yale and Mitchell Roslin at Lenox Hill, to embarrass themselves — waving the “fat is bad” banner under which they do battle.  MedPage Today gives the story straight up.   In NPR’s story, another warrior, Walter Willett of Harvard, unabashedly promoting his own persistently fuzzy thinking, calls the Flegal article “rubbish” — but the reporter, Allison Aubrey, is too sharp to buy it from someone so deeply invested.  She ends by suitably questioning the connections of BMI to risk.

Campos’s op-ed piece does the favor of translating the Flegal findings into everyday terms (and without the pointless provisos that burden the NYT’s supposed news story):

This means that average-height women — 5 feet 4 inches — who weigh between 108 and 145 pounds have a higher mortality risk than average-height women who weigh between 146 and 203 pounds. For average-height men — 5 feet 10 inches — those who weigh between 129 and 174 pounds have a higher mortality risk than those who weigh between 175 and 243 pounds.

Is the hysteria about overweight and obesity is over?  I’m sure not.  In today’s article, Campos — who was one of the first to explode the fiction of an obesity epidemic, with his 2002 book The Obesity Myth — reminds us of a crucial fact about public health:

Anyone familiar with history will not be surprised to learn that “facts” have been enlisted before to confirm the legitimacy of a cultural obsession and to advance the economic interests of those who profit from that obsession.

There’s too much at stake with the obesity epidemic for our culture’s power brokers to give it up so quickly.  One day, some other aspect of modernity will emerge to inspire dread (and profits).  In the meantime, we might at least hope to see some re-jiggering of the BMI boogeyman.


Science, Race, and Silence

The coverage of the Feb. 12th shootings at the University of Alabama in Huntsville has been preoccupied, by and large, with the accused killer.   There are details about her background, the 1986 shooting of her brother, her training at Harvard, the 1993 investigation of a bomb mailed to a Harvard professor, her research, her publications, her tenure case at UAH, her husband.

And there has been new talk about the usual issues:  The  perpetual vexation about tenure.  The problem of safety on campuses.   The question, now customary, of whether a shooter’s  writing offers any clues to her or his psyche.

But there hasn’t been much discussion about the victims.  Two of the three who were killed, Maria Ragland Davis and Adriel D. Johnson, Sr., were African American professors.  All three of the deceased — the other, Prof. Gopi Podila, was department chair — were known for their support of students, according to obituaries published by the Chronicle of Higher Education.   This in itself is both laudable and rare enough, in a field increasingly driven by the quest for research grants, to deserve mention.  But the sudden death of two science professors who were themselves black Americans and who devoted themselves to educating black students in the sciences is a particularly profound loss to higher education.

That Dr. Ragland Davis was a black woman, one of the rarest of beings in the scientific professoriate, makes the loss particularly poignant.

Statistics are no solace, of course.  But the silence about the loss of two black American professors who died by gunfire is part of the greater, even more stunning, silence about the great many black Americans who die by gunfire every year.

In 2006, the last year for which complete data have been posted by the National Center for Health Statistics (see table 18), 30,896 Americans died by gunshot.  Almost half, 12,791, were murders.  That’s 35 firearm murders per day, on average.   About one every 40 minutes.

Black Americans are over twice as likely to die by gunshot than are white Americans (see table 19 at the link above).  The gunshot death rates are roughly 22 deaths per 100,000 per year and roughly 9 per 100,000 per year, respectively.  Those risks have been remarkably constant, even as deaths from Americans’ main form of deadly mishap, vehicle crashes, have declined.

This is not a plea for gun control.  Better gun control laws would allow a lot of people to live longer, and improve the public’s health — but we hear such pleas every time  a multiple shooting makes the news.  That’s not the point here.

The point is the problem of giving chances to people who haven’t had them.  Or, to put it more bluntly, the point is race.

In particular, the impossibility, still, of talking about how science should be done by people who have not historically been included in shaping it and defining it.  By people other than the ones who, at least until recently, made all the decisions about what’s worth studying and what’s worth changing.  By women, by black Americans, by people who grew up poor, by people who did not attend elite universities on the east coast or in California.

Universities — the elite ones and the many non-elite ones — are indispensable in the endeavor to change science, for all sorts of reasons.  Maybe the best reason is the presence of professors who support and encourage students who aren’t drawn from the usual class of people.

The deaths at UAH should be an occasion for great mourning, not only for professors who died doing their work, but for the project of changing science.  If the silence over the Huntsville victims were the silence of grief, it wouldn’t seem so bad.  But I think it’s the silence of not really caring, or of not wanting to face a shameful truth.  Compared to talking about the links among race, science, and education… well, it’s less taxing to wonder about the shooter’s unpublished novel.