The Woolcock Institute of Medical Research

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Research reveals there’s more to obesity and breathlessness

Tuesday, January 03, 2023

Obesity accounts for about one quarter of breathlessness symptoms in Australian adults, our researchers have found.

Study co-author and respiratory expert Professor Helen Reddel says that as obesity becomes more common, establishing the true cause of breathlessness is more important than ever.

"It's important for people to know that if you are overweight and are often short of breath, it may not necessarily be to do with your weight. Breathlessness can indicate the presence of serious conditions such as asthma, COPD, lung fibrosis and heart conditions," she says.

Get your breathlessness checked

"We want to draw attention to the importance of seeing your doctor if you are short of breath. Don't assume that it's because you are overweight," says Professor Reddel.

She says that because breathlessness feels unpleasant, it can lead to a more sedentary lifestyle, which can result in you becoming unfit, with potential poorer quality of life, depression, anxiety and increased weight gain.

"Anything unpleasant will have an effect on our behaviour, and in most cases those who are very breathless will be conditioned to stop moving," she says. "The problem is, the less you exercise, the more breathless you’re going to be."

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A growing problem

While it shouldn’t be assumed that obesity is causing a person to be out of breath, it remains one of the most common underlying conditions of breathlessness.

Obesity is a problem that is growing in Australia, with almost 1 in 3 adults now obese: that is, they have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of more than 30. Surveys conducted between 2007 and 2018 showed that the prevalence of obesity in Australia rose from 17.5 percent to 31.3 percent.

Being overweight or obese increases the likelihood of developing many chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, asthma, back problems, chronic kidney disease, dementia, diabetes and some cancers.

Obesity is an important, modifiable cause of breathlessness, so the Woolcock study's findings have implications for future health policy and clinical practice. With increasing rates of obesity, the number of people troubled by breathlessness is also likely to increase.

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