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"Successive cohorts are living in this new environment and are at greater risk of obesity at earlier times in their lives," Masters said. "Each specific cohort looks like a wave that's grown bigger than the cohort that has come before it."

For example, Masters and his colleagues noted obesity's increasing effect on mortality in white men who died between the ages of 65 and 70 in the years 1986 to 2006.

Obesity accounted for about 3.5 percent of deaths for those born between 1915 and 1919, but it accounted for about 5 percent of deaths for those born 10 years later. Obesity killed off around 7 percent of those born another 10 years later.

Women appear to be more vulnerable than men to dying from obesity. Black women had the overall highest risk of dying from obesity or being overweight at 27 percent, followed by white women at 21 percent.

Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said the new research provides a helpful framework for understanding and tackling the obesity epidemic.

"Up to now, it's been a unilateral discussion about how obese you were or how much body fat you had," Benjamin said. "The solutions are not only more exercise and eating better, but a whole range of environmental factors we're going to have to address. The generation we have now is expected to be obese longer. That's a core reason we need to change things now if we're going to make this a healthier generation."

To that end, the study does validate current efforts by public health officials to combat the obesity epidemic by focusing on youngsters, Masters said.

"The fact they've been trying to stave off obesity earlier and earlier in life, I think, is the right thing," Masters said. "It's a reaffirmation of the public health campaigns that are putting obesity at the forefront."

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