Anyone who has seen or listened to the news or even had a conversation with a family member, friend or neighbor has certainly heard of the coronavirus, the epidemic disease that has devastated China, moved across the globe and threatens to become a pandemic. We have been informed of cases and even deaths in the United States and been given advice about hand-washing and not touching our faces. We have also been made aware that the elderly are the most vulnerable cohort of the population, particularly those already plagued with underlying medical conditions. Surely this news is being taken seriously by those institutions and entities, such as congregate nutrition programs, whose mission and daily work is to serve the elderly. We believe that is of paramount importance and we salute and stand with our colleagues who do just that in communities across the country.
Coronavirus then can be termed an epidemic concern – and a new one. We need to be mindful of it and to stay informed. But the news surrounding this new epidemic has overshadowed the recent, and also important, announcement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about another epidemic that has become far too prevalent in the United States and that affects older individuals disproportionately. That is obesity and its twin concern (and sometimes cause) malnutrition.
Here are some facts probably not reported on your local news stations. The CDC regularly conducts demographic studies related to obesity in America. From the 1999-2000 study period to the most recent one (2017-18) the prevalence of obesity in the overall population in the United States increased from 30.5% to 42.4%. The increase is stunning and its magnitude is difficult to comprehend. That more than 4 out of every 10 people in this country are directly impacted is a cause for concern as well as a call to action.
Who is most affected? In one way or another we all are, because “obesity is a complex health issue,” according to the CDC and it contributes to or coexists with a number of other diseases. It is personally costly to those who suffer from it in terms of quality of life and it is financially costly to the entire nation in terms of the enormous price tag associated with related care.
But just who is most likely to be obese? Simply put, it is those folks with the same demographic profile that independent academic research sponsored by NFESH for years has identified as most like to suffer from senior hunger. That is, first and obviously, older individuals; secondly, CDC data show that the percentage of people age 60 and older who are (42.8%) obese is slightly larger than that of the population as a whole. So are Blacks (49.6%) and Hispanics (44.8%).
If you are thinking that the obesity epidemic is of an entirely different sort that the coronavirus, you are certainly right. For one thing, obesity is not a communicable disease. You/we won’t catch it nor are you/we dependent on expert researchers to develop a vaccine or other treatment modalities. But obesity can and should be seen as a community disease – one that not only exists within all communities and is especially prevalent in certain communities where a large percentage of the population are at risk due to age, race, ethnicity, or economic status. But this fact is also clear: when nearly 43 % of elders in America are obese, the epidemic touches every community.
And the flip side of that fact is equally worthy of attention. Every community in this land can and does have a significant role to play in treating and preventing it. Congregate nutrition programs should be and are at the forefront of that effort as they work to address “hunger and food insecurity” as the Older Americans Act requires and to combat malnutrition and its malevolent twin, obesity, by providing vulnerable seniors access to nutritionally balanced meals. We stress the word “vulnerable” and are proud to work with those organizations that are dedicated to reaching those very folks.
We’d like to see attention to that goal become epidemic.