Without effective, widespread interventions to reduce obesity, U.S. children today may face shorter life expectancies than their parents, concludes a report released last week in The New England Journal of Medicine.
Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, reviewed national data and found that obesity currently reduces life expectancy by three to nine months. That figure could rise, however, to between two to five years—more than the effect of all deaths from murder, suicide, and accidents combined—as the growing number of obese children begin to manifest obesity-related diseases such as diabetes, stroke, heart attack, and renal failure, the report says.
“As a result of the substantial rise in the prevalence of obesity and its life-shortening complications … life expectancy at birth and at older ages could level off or even decline within the first half of this century,” the report states.
And because obesity is occurring at younger ages, children and young adults face an increased risk of death from obesity-related diseases as they enter middle and older ages, leading to an overall increase in health-care costs, the report says.
Researchers discounted the gains in life expectancy anticipated by improved medical technologies and treatments, noting that “medical treatment of obesity has been largely unsuccessful.” In addition, high rates of pollution, stress, tobacco use, and physical inactivity could further limit children’s life expectancies.
“Our approach probably underestimates the negative effect of obesity on life expectancy,” the report says. “Our conservative estimate is that life expectancy at birth in the U.S. would be higher … if obesity did not exist.”
Not all experts share the same view about life-expectancy predictions generally, and some greeted the University of Illinois report with skepticism.
Samuel H. Preston, a demographer at the University of Pennsylvania, said in an editorial in the same March 17 issue of the The New England Journal that the predictions of decreased life expectancy might be “excessively gloomy,” considering medical advances and the reductions in smoking and other harmful behaviors.