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New Obesity Center to Tackle Epidemic of Fat

The Feinberg School of Medicine is launching the new Northwestern Comprehensive Center on Obesity.

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November 13, 2008 | by Marla Paul
CHICAGO --- The U.S. population of adults and children is rapidly becoming so obese that, for the first time, the life expectancy of the next generation may be lower than the current one.

Their life span may be shortened by obesity's ever lengthening list of health complications: type 2 diabetes --especially in young people-- high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, breast and colon cancer, arthritis and possibly Alzheimer's disease.

To tackle the looming health problem, the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine is launching the new Northwestern Comprehensive Center on Obesity (NCCO). The center will offer treatment, conduct clinical and basic research and educate professionals and the public about obesity.

"Obesity -- and its complications -- is the epidemic of our time," said Lewis Landsberg, M.D. the founder and director of the center and former dean of the Feinberg School. "There's been an astonishing increase in obesity in the past two decades. We hope to make a contribution to help this enormous problem."

More than one third of U.S. adults -- over 72 million people -- now are obese and nearly 20 percent of children and adolescents are overweight.

The center's research will focus on fundamental causes of obesity in an effort to identify new therapeutic targets. Clinical research will focus on obesity and weight gain in pregnant women. This is important since both obesity and excessive weight gain by the mother have been shown to adversely affect the health of the offspring in later life. Another key area will be treatment of low-income, minority populations in Chicago, who have a high prevalence of obesity. Ultimately, Northwestern scientists hope to develop new strategies to treat and prevent obesity.

In clinical care, the center's physicians and staff will evaluate patients and develop programs to help people lose weight and adopt healthy lifestyles. Bariatric surgery will be an important component of the program. Another mission of the center will be to educate medical students, practicing physicians and the community about obesity.

"The education of doctors and healthcare workers could be much improved," said Landsberg, who also is the Irving S. Cutter Professor of Medicine Emeritus.

He traced the obesity epidemic to multiple causes: biological, evolutionary, psychological, sociological, economic and political.

Obesity is programmed into our genes, he noted. "The whole human race is heir to obesity because we evolved in a setting of intermittent famine, and those with more efficient metabolic systems were able to survive," Landsberg said. "In our genome is the predisposition to store excess calories. It serves us well when we're faced with a subsistence diet, but in the presence of an abundant food supply and dietary excess, it leads to obesity and diabetes."

One goal of the center is to fight the stigma of being obese. "We recognize there are metabolic differences between those who are obese and those who are lean," Landsberg said. "It's not just gluttony and sloth, despite what people think. What maintains the weight of one person will cause somebody else to gain weight, independent of activity."

While treatment of obese people is important, Landsberg said prevention of obesity through the right eating and exercise is critical. Individuals, doctors and health care providers as well as the government need to share responsibility.

Every person should know their Body Mass Index and risk factors and should work to control those. "It's the doctor's responsibility to check those risk factors, make the patients aware of the risks associated with obesity and provide guidance on how to prevent it in the first place and treat it when it develops," Landsberg said. The government also has a role in making sure food is adequately labeled so consumers can make smart choices, he said.

Clinical care will be at the new Center for Lifestyle Medicine, 675 N. St. Clair, 19th floor, Galter Pavilion, Chicago. For more information on the center, visit www.ncco.northwestern.edu or call (312) 695-2300.
Topics: University