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Obesity contributes to a wide range of serious health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer, a new study has revealed.

Led by Professor Elina Hypponen at the University of South Australia’s Australian Centre for Precision Health and published in Lancet Digital Health earlier this year, the study examined data from the UK Biobank, a research database of health and genetic information from half a million volunteers, to uncover associations between body mass index (BMI) and a range of disease outcomes among over 300,000 people.

Past research had indicated that a high BMI is associated with increased risk of chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, but due to the difficulty of conducting clinical trials related to obesity, it had been hard to prove causation.

Professor Hypponen and her team developed a multi-dimensional analysis where genetic data underwent stringent examination to deliver high confidence of causality.

“We compared evidence from five different statistical approaches to establish how strong that evidence for casual effect actually is,” she said.

“Fully consistent evidence across all approaches was seen for 14 different diseases, and for 26 different diseases evidence was obtained by at least four of the five methods used.

“What increases the confidence that these associations are largely reflective of real effects is the fact that those effects which came across with consistent evidence are also the ones for which we have previous clinical evidence.”

A key finding from the study involved the extent to which it confirms existing concerns over the link between obesity and diabetes, with many of the diseases identified related to high BMI known to be commonly associated with poorly controlled diabetes.

“For example, we saw evidence for effect on peripheral nerve disorders, chronic leg and foot ulcers, and even gangrene and kidney failure, which are all known to be diabetic complications. This suggests a key aspect to reduce comorbidity risk in obesity is careful monitoring of blood sugar and effective control of diabetes and its complications.”

The study also highlighted the importance of genetic research to further understanding of the role genes play in obesity and insights it can provide for its future management and treatment.

“We know that obesity has a strong genetic basis, which can make weight management very difficult to some of us and the same strategies for prevention may also not work for all. Genetic studies are giving us deeper insights into the biological pathways which drive obesity, and hopefully these types of studies will also provide us with new strategies for prevention.”