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May 08, 2021  

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  • Obesity and Lifespan: Extra Pounds, Fewer Years?

    Obesity and Lifespan: Extra Pounds, Fewer Years?

    July 05, 2005

    By: Laurie Edwards for Reflux1

    We know that obesity is a huge factor in such conditions as diabetes and heart disease, but a new study points out its grim – and inevitable – toll on a broader scale: Life expectancy. According to researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, obesity currently shortens the average lifespan by four to nine months. Even more disconcerting is their prediction that within 50 years, obesity could shave two to five years off of our current lifespan of 77.6 years.
    Take Action
    Beat obesity and live longer:

    Practice portion control

    Surround yourself with healthy food choices

    Keep a food diary

    Start a regular exercise program – any exercise is a good start

    Talk to your doctor to develop nutrition and fitness plan that fits your life

    Don’t be shy about asking for support from friends and family

    Not only would such a decrease fly in the face of the historical trend of increasing longevity due to increased technology, it would outpace many significant contributors to mortality.

    “The magnitude of that effect may sound trivial to some, but in fact it’s greater than the negative effect of all accidental mortality, such as car accidents, suicides and homicides combined,” said lead researcher S. Jay Olshanksy, professor of epidemiology at UIC School of Public Health.

    In fact, according to the study released in the New England Journal of Medicine, the decrease could even surpass the life-shortening consequences of cancer and heart disease, conditions well-known for their serious impact on longevity.

    Traditional models of life expectancy forecast continued increases, the logic being that the more technology and understanding we have at our disposal, the more we can do for conditions that could potentially shorten lifespan. These models are based on historical trends, and therein lies the problem: History has never had to contend with an obesity epidemic before.

    Olshanksy and his team believe that these traditional models do not accurately reflect the status of those currently living, people who are directly affected by the obesity epidemic. In this way, their approach is drastically different from most lifespan evaluations. It relies on evaluating years of life lost from obesity, rather than past historical trends.

    The well-documented increase in childhood obesity over the past 30 years – at least 15 percent of school-age children are technically obese and up to 30 percent are overweight – also influences the question of longevity. Despite the many technological advances the future may yield, they may not be enough to offset the many problems associated with childhood obesity, such as diabetes and high cholesterol, which often follow people into adulthood.

    What this means for children is that the serious risks commonly experienced by older adults could now be theirs at much younger ages. “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… It’s really a staggering prospect,” said Children’s Hospital Boston’s Dr. David Ludwig, a co-author of the study.

    The study also highlights a tension politically and economically, namely in the discussion of Social Security. Currently, government models for Social Security predict slow, steady improvements in lifespan, leading to worry that there won’t be enough funds to cover a U.S. population that is aging and surviving longer than ever before.

    While many agree that the problems created by obesity that are illustrated by Olshansky’s team certainly deserve examination, some experts do not think problems as complex as Social Security can be resolved by this study. “That’s too simplistic,” said Dr. Kenneth Thorpe, an Emory University health policy expert.

    Last updated: 05-Jul-05


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