Current Obesity Rates Among Children Could Lower Life Expectancy, Study Finds
The prevalence of obesity among children in the United States could lead to a surge in heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer and shorten the lifespan of the current generation of children by up to five years, according to a study publish Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Boston Globe reports (Mishra, Boston Globe, 3/17).
The study, led by S. Jay Olshansky, a demographer at the University of Illinois, used obesity rates and estimates of the health impact of obesity from the University of Alabama School of Public Health and the National Center for Health Statistics (Stein, Washington Post, 3/17). Data used in the study came from between 1988 and 1994 (Mestel, Los Angeles Times, 3/17).
Researchers projected life expectancy by computing how much longer residents would live if "everyone who is currently obese were to lose enough weight to maintain an optimal" body-mass index (Belluck, New York Times, 3/17). According to the study, obesity currently reduces the current life expectancy of 77.6 years -- the highest recorded -- by four to nine months. If childhood obesity rates persist, the average life span could be reduced by two to five years, the study found (Hellmich, USA Today, 3/16).
According to the Wall Street Journal, the effects of obesity on life expectancy likely will become apparent in the next 10 to 50 years. Researchers say that curing one major disease or achieving another significant medical advance would not prevent life-expectancy rates from declining as a result of obesity. Additionally, minorities and low-income residents would be most affected because they generally have less access to health care and higher rates of obesity (Zimmerman, Wall Street Journal, 3/17).
In the report, researchers said their projections have great implications for public policy, including the Social Security system. Social Security expects life expectancy to increase to the low 80s by mid-century (Uhlman, Philadelphia Inquirer, 3/17).
However, according to the researchers, "the U.S. population may be inadvertently saving Social Security by becoming more obese" and dying sooner, but "this 'benefit' will occur at the expense of the economy in the form of lost productivity before citizens reach retirement and large increases in Medicare costs associated with obesity and its complications" (New York Times, 3/17).
David Ludwig, an obesity specialist at Children's Hospital Boston and an author of the study, said a "fundamental change" is necessary to reduce obesity rates among children, including reform of school lunch and physical education policies, stricter regulations on food advertisements, widespread nutrition education and increased spending on obesity treatments (Boston Globe, 3/17).
Olshansky said, "We think today's younger generation will have shorter and less-healthy lives than their parents for the first time in modern history unless we intervene" (Tanner, AP/Detroit Free Press, 3/17). He added, "This is a public health disaster waiting to happen, and we have brought it on ourselves" (Ritter, Chicago Sun-Times, 3/17).
Ludwig compared the obesity rates to "a massive tsunami heading toward the U.S. If you wait until you can see the ocean headed toward the shore, it's too late to take action" (Boston Globe, 3/17). He said, "There is an unprecedented increase in prevalence of obesity at younger and younger ages without much obvious public health impact. But when they start developing heart attack, stroke, kidney failures, amputations, blindness and ultimately death at younger ages, then that could be a huge effect on life expectancy" (New York Times, 3/17).
However, Dan Mindus of the Center for Consumer Freedom -- a not-for-profit association of restaurants, fast food companies and consumers -- said, "This study is just half a step removed from science fiction. It uses discredited methodology, and it makes dire warnings that are not supported by its own data."
Katherine Flegal of CDC said, "We should be cautious about these projections, because we don't know what the effects will be of factors such as decreases in smoking and improvements in medical care" (USA Today, 3/17).
Samuel Preston of the University of Pennsylvania Populations Study Center writes in an accompanying editorial that the study is "excessively gloomy" and that there are "many factors at work to maintain a steady pace of advance" in life expectancy. "[P]rivate companies will continue to have incentives to develop new products that enhance health and longevity," he states (Chicago Sun-Times, 3/17). The study is available online.