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The World Health Organization warns of the rising threat of heart disease and stroke as overweight and obesity rapidly increase

WHO urges healthy diet, physical activity, no tobacco use

Overweight boy playing on the beach, Cuba
Regular physical activity reduces body weight and helps to prevent cardiovascular disease

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over one billion people are overweight globally, and that if current trends continue, that number will increase to 1.5 billion by 2015. This warning comes in advance of World Heart Day on 25 September.

Overweight and obesity are important risk factors for cardiovascular disease, which is the number one cause of death and accounts for over 17 million deaths every year. Once considered a problem only in wealthy countries, WHO estimates show that overweight and obesity are now dramatically on the rise in low and middle income countries. This is due to a number of factors, including a global shift in diet towards increased energy, fat, salt and sugar intake, and a trend towards decreased physical activity due to the sedentary nature of modern work and transportation, and increasing urbanisation.

According to WHO estimates, more than 75% of women over the age of 30 are now overweight in countries as diverse as Barbados, Egypt, Malta, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey, and the United States. Estimates are similar for men, with over 75% now overweight in, for example, Argentina, Germany, Greece, Kuwait, New Zealand, Samoa, and the United Kingdom. Notably, the Western Pacific islands of Nauru and Tonga have the highest global prevalence of overweight where nine out of every 10 adults are overweight.

“The sheer magnitude of the overweight and obesity problem is staggering,” said Dr Catherine Le-Galès Camus, WHO Assistant Director-General of Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health. “The rapid increase of overweight and obesity in many low and middle income countries foretells an overwhelming chronic disease burden in these countries in the next 10 to 20 years, if action is not taken now.”

Raised body mass index is a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases. WHO estimates that over the next ten years, cardiovascular disease – primarily heart disease and stroke - will increase most notably in the regions of the Eastern Mediterranean and Africa, where cardiovascular disease-related deaths are predicted to rise by over 25%.

WHO welcomes and supports this year’s World Heart Day, taking place on Sunday, 25 September 2005, which draws attention to this problem and focus on the importance of maintaining Healthy Weight, Healthy Shape.

“The real tragedy is that overweight and obesity, and their related chronic diseases, are largely preventable,” said Dr Robert Beaglehole, WHO Director of Chronic Diseases and Health Promotion. "Approximately 80% of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, and 40% of cancer could be avoided through healthy diet, regular physical activity and avoidance of tobacco use."

The WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health and the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control describe the actions needed to reduce tobacco use and support the adoption of healthy diets and regular physical activity.

Additional important risk factors, disability, death and economic projections for heart disease, stroke and other chronic diseases will be released by the World Health Organization in its forthcoming publication, Preventing Chronic Diseases: A Vital Investment, due to be launched later this year. The report will present the latest scientific information and make the case for urgent action to turn back the growing global threat of chronic diseases.

Note to Editors

Overweight is defined as body mass index ≥ 25; Obesity is defined as body mass index ≥ 30. Body mass index (BMI) = [Weight in kilograms ÷ Height in cm ÷ Height in cm] x 10 000

1 Full list includes: Barbados, Cook Islands, Dominica, Egypt, Fiji, Jamaica, Jordan, Kuwait, Malta, Mexico, Micronesia, Nicaragua, Niue, Palau, Saint Lucia, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Seychelles, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and the United States.

2 Full list includes: Argentina, Austria, Cook Islands, Germany, Greece, Kiribati, Kuwait, Malta, Micronesia, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Samoa, Tonga, the United Kingdom and the United States.

For more information contact:

Alexandra Munro
Communications Officer, Department of Chronic Diseases and Health Promotion
Telephone: +41 22 791 5053
Mobile phone: +41 78 767 76 39

Dr Joanne Epping-Jordan
Department of Chronic Diseases and Health Promotion
Telephone: +41 22 791 4646