Obesity Drops Life Expectancy

From the May 2005 Trumpet Print Edition

For the first time in American history, children will not live as long or be as healthy as their parents, according to a report in the New England Journal of Medicine published in March.

In 1900, the U.S. life expectancy was 47.3, and a century of medical “progress” added 30 years to that figure. But according to the report, the trend is reversing, and we can expect the current generation to die two to five years earlier than today’s adults.

Why? Because a third of American kids are fat. In the last 25 years, the rate of childhood obesity more than doubled, and now obesity impacts life expectancy more than cancer or heart disease.

The report stated that the severity of the problem is so great that the diseases and complications associated with obesity are likely to appear at younger ages. Childhood diabetes, for example, has increased tenfold in the last 20 years. “It’s one thing for an adult of 45 or 55 to develop Type 2 diabetes and then experience the life-threatening complications of that—kidney failure, heart attack, stroke—in their late 50s or 60s. But for a 4-year-old or 6-year-old who’s obese to develop Type 2 diabetes at 14 or 16” raises the possibility of devastating complications before reaching age 30, said Dr. David Ludwig, who co-authored the study. “It’s really a staggering prospect” (Associated Press, March 16).

Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, the report’s lead author, considers the projections of reduced life expectancy to be “very conservative, and I think the negative effect is probably greater than we have shown” (ibid.).

The report also says obesity has already shortened the life expectancy of today’s adults by at least four to nine months, which is more than fatal accidents, homicides and suicides combined. Two thirds of American adults are overweight or obese.

Ludwig admitted it would take a “fundamental change” in society to reduce obesity. His suggestions included setting aside time for healthy meals at home, encouraging physical activity, limiting tv viewing and renovating school lunch programs.

Our strategy must involve uncovering the cause and dealing with it. Another study, published in the January issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that infants born to overweight mothers are 15 times more likely to be obese by age 6 than children of lean mothers. There’s our clue. Genetics are certainly a factor. But we can’t discount the fact that children are also mimickers—and many parents have not demonstrated the way to fitness.