It is said that for a parent to outlive their child is one of life's most soul shattering experiences -- a total disruption of the natural order. It is also a staple of Hollywood films from Pet Sematary to Ordinary People. Unfortunately, it looks that we now have an example of life imitating art -- and not just for a handful of families. If current projections are correct, children dying before their parents is about to become the norm.
A new study published in the April 12 issue of the International Journal of Obesity reports that Americans born between 1966 and 1985 became obese at a much earlier age than their parents, and they are not dropping the extra pounds. Plus, as I constantly remind readers, far more young people are obese now than back a generation or so ago. This makes it much more likely that they'll be outlived by their parents, the baby boomers.
In a news release, researcher Joyce Lee, MD, MPH, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of Michigan, reiterates this point. "Our research indicates that higher numbers of young and middle-age American adults are becoming obese at younger and younger ages." The study found 20% of people born between 1966 and 1985 were obese in their 20s. Their parents did not reach that obesity prevalence milestone until their 30s, and their grandparents did not reach that milestone until their 40s or 50s. In other words, more Americans are getting heavier earlier in their lives and carrying the extra weight longer, and the impact of this is likely to shorten life expectancy.
The link between obesity and shortened life expectancy is well established. A 2005 report by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), for example, showed that the average American is on track to lose five years of life expectancy due to increasing rates of obesity. The researchers analyzed trends in mortality rates as well as trends in body mass indexes and other factors that could affect the health of the current generation of children and young adults. They concluded that without aggressive steps to curb the rise of obesity, children and young adults will face a much greater risk of mortality throughout their lives than their elders.
The NIA authors reported studies showing that two-thirds of American adults are overweight and that the prevalence of obesity in U.S. adults has increased about 50 percent per decade since 1980. They pointed to additional research indicating that severely obese people live up to 20 years less than people who are not overweight. Some researchers estimated that obesity causes about 300,000 deaths in the U.S. annually. In addition, obesity is fueling an epidemic of type-2 diabetes, which also reduces lifespan.
Richard M. Suzman, Ph.D., Associate Director of the NIA for Behavioral and Social Research said, "This work paints a disturbing portrait of the potential effect that lifestyles of baby boomers and the next generation could have on life expectancy. But it is critical to note that the reduced life expectancy forecast by the study is not inevitable, and there is room for optimism. Government and private sector efforts are mobilizing against obesity, and increased education, improved medical treatments, and reduced smoking can tip the balance in favor of reduced mortality and continued improvements in life expectancy."
Back in 2003, a study of 14,000 Americans published in the Journal of the American Medical Association took a darker view. The director of that study, Dr. David Allison of the University of Alabama, said, "Obesity has a profound effect on life span. It increases the risk for several life-threatening conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer. Younger people are especially vulnerable, in part because they have more years to live and more time for the obesity to take its toll." And more recent research published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2009 also makes Dr. Suzman's hopeful outlook seem a bit naive. That study showed that if the current trends in obesity continue, by 2020, nearly half the U.S population (45%) will be obese by World Health Organization standards. This means that even more people will experience the increased risks for heart disease, diabetes and other health complications associated with obesity.
I've written many times that we can't continue to eat more and do less without putting on weight. I recently discussed the impact of increased portion sizes at restaurants. And the impact of our greater reliance on processed, calorie rich foods is a well-worn subject in my blog posts. Still the obesity challenge remains. If it continues unabated, the favorite parental threat, "Over my dead body," will one-day make no sense, since so many kids won't last long enough to see their own parents die.