Will Obesity Shorten Life Expectancy?

Life expectancy in the United States is at an all-time high, according to recent reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Deaths from heart disease, cancer and diabetes are down, the agency reports, contributing to an average life expectancy of 77.6 years for Americans. The Social Security Administration has even predicted a substantial rise in life expectancy in the 21st century.

But some health experts are not optimistic. An article released today in the New England Journal of Medicine finds that life expectancy in the United States may actually decrease because of obesity.

"Obesity is like a tsunami heading to the U.S.," said Dr. David S. Ludwig, pediatric endocrinologist at the Harvard School of Medicine in Boston and contributing author of the article.

Children Leading Shorter Lives

"Our goal for this article is to make people aware that we all have underestimated the negative impact of obesity," said S. Jay Olshansky, epidemiologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health and lead author.

Extensive studies of obesity and its effects on mortality have shown that those with increased weight, or a Body Mass Index greater than 25, have increased death rates from heart disease.

Annually, Americans are spending between $70 billion and $100 billion on health care, largely to cover treatment for obesity-related illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and arthritis, according to the article's authors.

Children are also feeling the effects of obesity -- an increasing number are being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure. The rise in disability and decline in fitness level among children have been attributed, in part, to obesity.

As a result, these youths may live shorter lives than their parents.

The Politics of Fat

The Social Security Administration has predicted that the anticipated rise in life expectancy may also contribute to the bankruptcy of Social Security funds.

But the authors think these predictions should be reconsidered given their calculations. The article cites that, with the predicted increased prevalence of obesity, the decline in life expectancy will actually conflict with the estimates given by the administration.

"I want this article to play a major role in the Social Security debate," said Olshansky.

Is it Inevitable?

Some health experts believe these predictions about obesity's health effects may be unnecessarily dire, citing advances in technology that can provide early detection and treatment.

"A drug may be developed for obesity that really suppresses appetite without any side effects," said Bradford Kirkman-Liff, professor of health policy and biotechnology at Arizona State University in Tempe.

There have been other remarkable changes in healthy behavior in this country.

"Who in the 1970s would have predicted the changes in smoking behavior?" said Kirkman-Liff.

The journal article also notes that "a leveling off or decline in life expectancy in the United States is not inevitable."

"So we are getting fatter, and that is bad, but the sky is not falling," said Dr. Tim Byers, professor of preventive medicine and biometrics at University of Colorado Health Science Center in Denver.

Minority Populations Hardest Hit

But even the most optimistic officials recognize that if current trends continue, the lives of Americans will, in the near future, be less healthy and possibly shorter.

The problem may be most prevalent among minority populations, where adult obesity has increased the fastest and access to health care is limited.

"Obesity is like the quiet before the storm," said Ludwig.