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Will Obesity Shorten the American Life Span?

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

Child Obesity Threatens U.S. Life Span continued...

"I am optimistic," Preston tells WebMD. "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.

Ludwig hopes Preston is right. But he says the U.S. response to childhood obesity falls far short of the U.S. antismoking effort.

"We continue to condone a multibillion-dollar campaign by the food industry to get children to eat the most unhealthy foods imaginable," Ludwig says. "We don't adequately fund schools, so principals have to turn to soda machines in the hallways and fast-food contracts in the cafeterias to close budget gaps. At the same time, lack of funds forces them to close afterschool activities and physical education."

The childhood obesity expert calls for a ban on food ads aimed at young children. He calls for stronger federal funding of schools -- especially for mandatory physical education programs. And he calls for federal laws to force insurance companies to pay for the treatment of childhood obesity.

But Ludwig doesn't let families off the hook.

"Parents can turn off the TV and have a family meal once a day together -- that is at least one opportunity to give children healthy food and model a healthy lifestyle," he says.

Preston, too, asks Americans to act.

"I think WebMD readers already know what the problem is: You are hurting yourselves and your children via poor diet and inadequate exercise levels," he says. "The problem already is serious enough to impact national mortality figures. So look to yourselves."

Will we take action before it's too late? Preston thinks we will.

"On a long-term basis, I do not foresee a cessation in the rate of improvement in mortality," he says. "Our institutions are well adapted to advancing health and longevity. They have shown an amazing ability to do so over a century. I do not see why that period should come to an end."

Ludwig says he and his colleagues very much hope Preston is right.

SOURCES: Olshansky, S.J. The New England Journal of Medicine, March 17, 2005; vol 352: pp 1138-1145. Preston, S.H. The New England Journal of Medicine, March 17, 2005; vol 352: pp 1135-1137. David S. Ludwig, MD, PhD, director, obesity program, Children's Hospital, Boston. Samuel H. Preston, PhD, professor of sociology and demography, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

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