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How the Obesity Epidemic Threatens the Stethoscope

Stethoscope-and-WeightObesity is a growing concern for much of the world. Experts blame the trend on an overabundance of inexpensive food and a glut of supermarkets, as well as on inactivity and reduced leisure time. Still, that is not the whole story. In fact, more people have access to fresh fruits and vegetables than at any other time in human history. Weight gain in a developing nation tends to occur on all socioeconomic levels, which has led experts to believe that the changing trend must be down to an environmental factor. Interestingly, a noticeable rise in obesity correlates with the introduction of high fructose corn syrup consumption.

High fructose corny syrup is used by snack and drink manufactures because it’s cheaper than sugar and yields an even flavor. An overabundance of carbohydrates also contributes to the rise in obesity, though. Grains are more assessable than they have ever been as well, and many people turn to grains to help them curb their fat intake. While this plant-derived food does not contain much fat, the body can readily convert the energy it contains into lipids.

Mexico—having a higher obesity rate than the U.S. for the first time—has taken matters into their own hands by enacting a tax on sweet beverages. In Europe, several countries, such as Hungary and Denmark, have implemented taxes on “unhealthy” foods. While taxes on these foods remains unlikely in the U.S., many American doctors have noted that the rise in obesity is making it harder for them to accurately diagnose problems with the heart, lungs and liver.

The Stethoscope

Excess weight is detrimental to the health of the patient, but it also makes a doctor’s job much harder. Fat—consisting of lipids—absorbs the faint sounds coming from the body’s organs, meaning that doctors have to use more expensive electronic stethoscopes on these patients if they’re to gauge their health. That is not all: doctors also have to order special blood pressure cuffs and scales to accommodate these patients.

In one 1997 study commissioned by the American Medical Association, 450 newly minted doctors were graded on their mastery of the stethoscope. Of these first, second and third-year students, only one third could accurately identify all 12 heart sounds used. This study has several medical experts wondering how doctors will fare in a world in which most people are at least a little bit overweight. Without a doubt, it will become harder to diagnose complex heart issues.


This situation has some experts calling for a revolution in portable ultrasound technology. In a world where the average person’s heart sounds are muffled by fat, ultrasound can provide a reliable way to see the heart functioning in real-time. Not everyone is enthused by this idea, however. The publication Global Heart recently referred to these handheld devices as a “disruptive innovation.” After all, the stethoscope has been in use for nearly 200 years. However, most experts agree that ultrasound technology should be adopted as soon as possible. Time will tell whether the obesity epidemic is the factor that allows ultrasound to gain a foothold in doctor’s offices worldwide.

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