New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had good reason to lash out at former White House doctor Connie Mariano, who said in an interview with CNN this week that because Christie is fat, she is “worried about this man dying in office.” Christie shot back on David Letterman’s show, “I find it fascinating that a doctor in Arizona who’s never met me, never examined me, never reviewed my history or medical records, knows nothing about my family history could make a diagnosis from 2,400 miles away. She must be a genius.” After hearing Mariano’s claims, Christie’s 12-year-old son asked him if he was going to die. Given that, Christie has every right to be outraged by what he called Mariano’s “irresponsible” statement.
(MORE: See TIME’s cover story “Chris Christie: The Boss”)
Strangely, pundits were quick to defend Mariano and cast their own diagnoses from afar. Howard Kurtz noted that “Christie is grossly overweight, and his health would be a legitimate issue if he runs for President in 2016.” Marc Ambinder, a recipient of bariatric surgery, pointed out that Christie has legitimized questions about the relationship between his weight and his (literal) fitness for the presidency: “Christie himself has acknowledged that his weight raises the probability that he will acquire debilitating medical conditions, and has thus admitted to the public square a fact about his body that requires communal judgment.”
It’s unfortunate that, despite his pugnacious reply to Mariano, Christie seems to have partly internalized the dual message of our fat-hating culture: that his weight puts him at grave risk of early death, and that in order to enjoy good health, he must become thin. Last year Christie revealed to Oprah Winfrey that he has been struggling for 30 years to lose weight, and on Feb. 12 he said that even though he considers himself “remarkably healthy,” he takes seriously the medical warnings that “my luck is going to run out relatively soon.”
I am not a doctor; if I were, I trust I wouldn’t have the poor judgment to make claims about Christie’s health solely on the basis of his weight. But I am very familiar with the statistical facts regarding the relationship, at a population-wide level, between various risk factors and early mortality.
(MORE: Can You Be Fat and Fit—and Thin and Unhealthy?)
Here are some facts relevant to the question of the moment:
In January 2017, Christie will be 54, while the current Democratic front runner for her party’s presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, will be 69. It is true that with all other things being equal, compared with normal-weight people like Clinton, very obese people like Christie have an elevated mortality risk. Specifically, the most recent, detailed and sophisticated study of the question, published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that people as heavy as Christie have a 29% increase in mortality risk vs. otherwise similar people of normal weight.
Now, 29% may sound like a significant elevation in risk, but let’s compare it with another factor, one that has a vastly more powerful effect than body weight: age.
Government actuarial tables reveal that with all other things being equal, the odds that a 69-year-old woman will die between January 2017 and January 2021 are 115% higher than the odds that a 54-year-old man will die during that four-year period. In other words, age poses almost exactly four times the mortality risk to Hillary Clinton as weight does to Chris Christie, in regard to the chances that either would die during a first presidential term.
I myself would very much prefer to see Clinton become President than Christie. But my or anybody else’s political preferences do not justify exploiting our culture’s fear and hatred of fat for political gain.
(VIDEO: Chris Christie: Master of Disaster)