Economics Professor Investigates Obesity

Dr. Kassens looks into the obesity issue with an economist’s view

Marathon runners, like Roanoke College economics professor Dr. Alice Kassens, typically don't struggle with obesity. Her rigorous training and healthy diet put her far from being at risk. So why did she write and present a paper at the 2006 Virginia Association of Economists Annual Meeting on obesity?

"Being a runner, obesity is something I don't understand, and as an economist, this is a way of trying to figure out why we have this problem," Kassens says.

The paper that came out of her dissertation is titled "Do the Obese Respond to Adverse Health Events?: A Behavioral Approach." It uses an economist's perspective to look at how a certain population of obese people responds to new information regarding their health. She uses the government-issued Health and Retirement Survey that focuses on over 12,000 aging subjects during the span of ten years.

"This population has the highest growth in obesity, but instead of looking at the causes, I asked how the obese respond to new information regarding their health," Kassens says. She looked at two things - how beliefs changed upon receiving new information and whether or not the population lost weight.

For example, prior to experiencing a heart attack, obese people might believe that they will live into their 70s, but after going into cardiac arrest, they begin to think they will not live as long. Kassens discovered that the subjects responded as expected to obesity-inflicted events in the same way that people respond to health situations not caused by obesity, such as lung cancer in that their personal lifespan expectation drops. But the important question remains: "Did they lose weight?"

"They didn't respond as well or do as much about it," Kassens says about the population she observed. This behavioral model that she investigated looked into what the obese population did with the information that it was given, and for the most part the answer was nothing.

"If people don't have the proper education, they aren't going to do anything about their problem until after the fact," says Kassens. She hopes to write another book that will suggest solutions in dealing with obesity. Her first book, "Changing Perceptions and Waistlines," comes out in 2008 and is intended mainly for health economists like herself.

Kassens says that she would like to add an educational dimension to her findings, discussions and updates in order to help those struggling with obesity. The College has helped Kassens in her endeavors by funding the meeting she attended to present her research.

"Our College's business department has been very supportive in getting us to conferences, and I'm lucky to be in a department that is able to help," she says.

Shena Sanchez

About the Author

Shena Sanchez is a 2008 graduate in English from Virginia. She was a student writer in the College's PR office and was very active on campus in several organizations, including Alpha Sigma Alpha and InterVaristy Christian Fellowship.

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