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Will Obesity Shorten the American Life Span?

Study: Without Action on Child Obesity, U.S. Life Span To Get Shorter
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WebMD Health News

March 16, 2005 - Americans' lives soon will grow shorter, researchers calculate. The reason: the accelerating epidemic of childhood obesity.

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 researchers' special report appears in the March 17 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.

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Child Obesity Threatens U.S. Life Span

Ludwig and colleagues note that two-thirds of American adults are obese or overweight. That dramatically increases our chances of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, kidney disease, and other life-threatening conditions.

But this is child's play compared with the effects of childhood obesity on life span. America's childhood obesity problem is growing faster and faster.

"Obesity rates are increasing fastest among children, and they will carry obesity-related health risks throughout their lives," Ludwig says. "An adult who gains a pound or 2 a year through middle age will be at increased risk. But that is much less dire than the overweight 4- to 6-year-old who gets diabetes at age 14 or 16 and has a heart attack before age 30."

Ludwig -- director of the obesity program at Children's Hospital, Boston -- says the childhood obesity epidemic has three phases. The first came in the last decade, when child obesity became common but the public health effects weren't yet felt. Phase two is right now, as we begin to see serious complications such as type 2 diabetes in very young people. Phase three, Ludwig predicts, is coming soon.

"But we still have a little time before these children become young adults with diabetes and start to have heart attacks, stroke, kidney failure, and increased mortality," he says. "It is a massive tsunami headed for the United States. One can know it is coming. But if we wait until we see the ocean level rising over the shore, it will be too late to take action."

In an editorial accompanying the study, University of Pennsylvania demography expert Samuel H. Preston, PhD, agrees that the Olshansky/Ludwig team's calculations are accurate. But Preston disagrees with their conclusion.

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