Will Obesity Shorten the American Life Span?
Study: Without Action on Child Obesity, U.S. Life Span To Get Shorter
March 16, 2005 - Americans' lives soon will grow shorter, researchers
calculate. The reason: the accelerating epidemic of childhood obesity.
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 is an impending
catastrophe," Ludwig tells WebMD. "Nothing like this has happened
before. It will overwhelm any other changes we will make to affect
The researchers' special report appears in the March 17 issue of The New
England Journal of Medicine.
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 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
"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
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