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The global prevalence of obesity has almost doubled since 1980, while some inroads have been made in dropping global cholesterol and high blood pressure rates. Those are the findings of three papers published in the Lancet, looking at global heart disease risk factors between 1980 and 2008.

“Our results show that overweight and obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are no longer Western problems or problems of wealthy nations. Their presence has shifted towards low and middle income countries, making them global problems,” according to senior study author Professor Majid Ezzati, from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London.

Global body mass index rates have almost doubled since 1980, when 4.8% of men and 7.9% of women were obese. In 2008, 9.8% of men and 13.8% of women in the world were obese, according to the study. The United States tops the dubious list of hefty high-income countries for largest increase in body mass index and highest rate of BMI.

The study finds that in 2008 more than half a billion adults were obese worldwide, including an estimated 297 million obese women and 205 million obese men. Excess body weight is a known risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, causing “nearly three million deaths every year worldwide” according to the World Health Organization.

Other BMI trends among countries include:

*Pacific Island nations top the chart for the highest BMI average in the world. It’s up to 70 percent higher than some countries in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

*After the United States, New Zealand has the highest BMI rate among high-income countries. Japan and Singapore have the lowest BMI rates among high-income countries.

*Women had virtually no rise in BMI in Belgium, Finland, France, and Switzerland during the study period. Italy was the only high-income European country where female BMI may have fallen from 1980 to 2008. Italy and Switzerland saw the smallest increases in male BMI during the study duration.

*Turkish women and Czech men have the highest BMI in Europe.

Global rates of high blood pressure decreased slightly between 1980 and 2008, but the study found variations across regions and countries. While the overall trends showed a drop in high blood pressure, the study notes that the number of people with uncontrolled hypertension increased from 605 million in 1980 to 978 million in 2008, due to population growth and aging.

High-income countries had large reductions in hypertension, while low-income and middle-income countries had growing rates of hypertension. High blood pressure is the top risk factor for heart disease deaths, causing more than 7 million globally each year, according to the study. The authors suggest that salt intake, fruit and vegetable consumption, obesity and overweight levels, and use of antihypertensive medications determine many of the patterns seen for hypertension levels.

Some of the hypertension trends among countries include:

*Highest hypertension levels are found in Baltic, East African, and West African countries.

*Among high income countries, the lowest rates for men and women were found in South Korea, Cambodia, Australia, Canada and the United States. The highest blood pressure rates were found in Portugal, Finland and Norway.

*Men had higher blood pressure than women in most world regions.

While the average global cholesterol levels held steady between 1980 and 2008, a closer examination shows that cholesterol decreased in Australasia, North America and Europe, while levels increased in east and southeast Asia and Pacific regions. Japan, China and Singapore all showed low cholesterol levels in 1980 that rose by 2008. The researchers attribute those rises in cholesterol to dietary changes that include more animal products and fats.

Other cholesterol findings include:

*Western European countries like Greenland, Iceland, Andorra, and Germany have the highest cholesterol levels in the world, while African countries have the lowest cholesterol levels

*Greece has the lowest cholesterol for men and women among Western high-income countries. The United States, Canada and Sweden also had low cholesterol.

Explaining how the research may help to fight heart disease globally, Ezzati said, “The findings are an opportunity to implement policies that lead to healthier diets, especially lower salt intake, at all levels of economic development, as well as looking at how we improve detection and control through the primary health care system. Policies and targets for cardiovascular risk factors should get special attention at the High-level Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on Non-Communicable Diseases in September 2011.”

The papers were written by Ezzati, Dr. Goodarz Danaei of the Harvard School of Public Health, and colleagues, using data from published and unpublished health exam surveys and epidemiological studies. They are part of the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries and Risk Factors Study, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the World Health Organization.