Obesity up, life expectancy down

UNC-CHAPEL HILL (US) —The obesity epidemic in the U.S. may end the nearly century-long steady climb in life expectancy, according to new research.

A study published in the journal Health Affairs says in order to accurately forecast future lifespans and to map out health policy decisions, it is essential to consider the health of the younger generation.

“Our analysis shows that health declines and reduced life expectancies will occur without aggressive public health action,” says Yang Yang, associate professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Forecasting now looks at death rates for each age at a given year or years to predict future death rates.

“Traditional forecasting assumes that when today’s children reach the age of 70, they will have the same mortality rate as people who are 70 today,” says Yang.

The researchers used the traditional forecasting method to predict cardiovascular disease death rates among men after the year 2000. Then they sought the same information using their new model, which also accounted for the health status of younger populations.

Their method was found to more accurate, correctly predicting an increase in cardiovascular death rates for men between the ages of 25 and 29. This may be because younger men have been more affected by the obesity epidemic than their predecessors.

“We need to think of the health of today’s kids and adapt modeling so that it is sensitized to their health if we’re going to make accurate predictions,” says Eric Reither, a sociologist at Utah State University.

Besides birth cohorts, residence and race may need to be considered. The obesity epidemic has hit hard among women in some areas of the Southeast, African American women, American Indians, and Alaskan natives.

As the population becomes heavier faster, people are living more of their lives with risks associated with obesity, such as Type II diabetes.

“These are not trivial issues without major health and economic consequences for the nation,” says S. Jay Olshansky, professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “They are profound.

“An entire generation of children is in trouble. It’s a problem that can be fixed, but first we have to know the problem exists.  Our methodology enables us to see the problem under the light of science in a rather startling way.”

The study was funded by the University Cancer Research Fund, the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station at Utah State, and the MacArthur Research Network on an Aging Society.

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