According to this life expectancy calculator, I should plan on living to 102 years old—a result of quite a lot of factors, including the fact that my family is particularly long-lived and cancer-free. Not sure I buy into these types of calculator (but they are morbid fun), but the general topic of life expectancy has been hot in the news lately. Some sources are claiming that the upward-creeping life expectancy that developed nations have been enjoying for decades might come to a screeching halt, or even worse, begin to decline. The subject of much finger-pointing is, unsurprisingly, rising obesity rates.
(Continued below the fold…)
Dr Peter Bradley, the director of public health in Suffolk, said: “If you become obese when you are young then your life expectancy will be considerably less.”
He added: “This hasn’t happened in hundreds of years. Even during the Second World War life expectancy continued to go up.”
Dr Colin Ware, the chairman of the National Obesity Forum, said: “We could be looking at a generation with shorter life expectancies than their parents, which is an alarming prospect.
“The biggest threat is Type 2 diabetes, which we are starting to see in large numbers in adolescents. We could also see levels of heart disease, which have been falling for 30 years, begin to rise.”
While those quotes were specific to the UK, a similar, if not worse trend is expected to be seen in the US.
The U.S. life span has been steadily increasing — although the rate of increase has slowed during the last 30 years. How long can we live? We may not get to find out, suggest S. Jay Olshansky, PhD, of the University of Illinois in Chicago; David S. Ludwig, MD, PhD, of Children’s Hospital in Boston; and colleagues.
The researchers calculate that in the first half of this century, U.S. life expectancy will level off or get shorter. Yes, medical advances will reduce death rates from various diseases. But they predict that onrushing disaster will overshadow all these advances.
“The childhood obesity epidemic is an impending catastrophe,” Ludwig tells WebMD. “Nothing like this has happened before. It will overwhelm any other changes we will make to affect longevity.”
The above quote refers to a 2005 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine by Olshansky et al, entitled “A potential decline in life expectancy in the United States in the 21st century.”
It is hard for me to judge whether these studies are doomsday exaggerations, or signs on the wall that we should be paying attention to. No one doubts that childhood obesity is on the rise–even if some do pooh-pooh the health consequences therein–but I wonder if there is much that can be done on a governmental level to change the minds and eating habits of Americans. The previous news piece also contained this quote, perhaps giving a reason for optimism:
“The U.S. lifespan has shown remarkably steady progress for a century in the U.S. And we have demonstrated that when we get to a point where lifestyle factors seriously affect national mortality, we are able to move in the proper direction.”
As an example, Preston points to the epidemic of cigarette smoking that set back U.S. life expectancy in the 1950s and 1960s. A huge public effort cut smoking rates — and Americans’ life spans renewed their upward march.
I’m not quite sure that I buy that, since the mindset of tobacco smoking vs. food intake is a very different one. You either smoke or you don’t, and the health impact of smoking has been well-documented and the disinformation train has been largely stopped. However, people *need* food to survive. Our body tells us when we are hungry, and we feel pleasure at satisfying that basic human need. It isn’t as black and white as quitting smoking–reducing obesity is likely more about subtle and gradual changes to diet and lifestyle over time. And the disinformation train about sugars, fats, carbs, etc is rampant in ‘food science’ and health, and from both sides of the fence (fat denialists as well as odd diet gurus and junk food marketing). Even the government is not a disinterested party when it comes to telling us what to eat, as could be easily argued by the FDA’s sources of input re: the food pyramid and what they allow to constitute a healthy lunch in public schools.
It will be interesting to observe over my lifetime (102 years should be enough…) whether the authors predictions come true—or if the developed world rallies to the cause of improving health as it did with anti-smoking campaigns.