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Obesity the focus of KU researcher





Several factors already are known to be partly responsible for America's obesity epidemic: lifestyle choices, age, race and gender. Recent findings by a Kansas researcher might add residential location to that list.

Dr. Christie Befort, a University of Kansas Medical Center researcher with northwest Kansas ties, completed a study that found people in rural areas are more likely to be obese than city dwellers.

The study, published in the National Rural Health Association's fall 2012 Journal of Rural Health, found the rural-urban disparity exists in younger Americans, ages 20 to 39. Obesity rates typically increase with age.

"I think we need to study that a little bit more to have a better understanding of it," Befort said of the disparity in young people. "Our thinking is that rural living is not as labor intensive as it used to be ... and those are prime years for weight gain."

Other factors could include diet -- the study found those in rural America typically consume a diet higher in fat content -- and physical isolation. Some in rural areas do not have easy access to fitness and educational facilities.

Befort, who has family in Smith Center, was quick to point out there are many factors that could increase someone's risk of obesity. She hopes the study will help identify where more resources are needed.

KU Med and other institutions already have developed programs to help improve access to health care and prevention activities in rural areas.

"If we truly want to decrease health care costs and improve the nation's health status, we are going to have to start viewing obesity as a top-tier public health concern for rural America," said Alan Morgan, chief executive officer of the National Rural Health Association.

While it long had been suspected rural areas have a higher incidence of obesity, Befort's study is the first to use objective data. The study was based on data collected by the National Center for Health Statistics.

This is significant because other studies examining the issue have allowed participants to report their own measurements, she said.

"We know people overestimate height and under-estimate weight," Befort said. "The actual rates of obesity were almost twice as high when we had objective reports. The discrepancy was larger."