Life expectancy average could decline

Published 10:26 pm Wednesday, July 2, 2008

By Staff
From time to time articles are submitted to Extension Agents for republication to the public. This article was written by Dr. Robert Keith, Alabama Cooperative Extension System nutrition and health specialist and professor of nutrition and food science at Auburn. The message is so timely that I wanted to share it with all of you.
In case you haven't heard, U.S. life expectancy has risen to 78 years - not on par with Japan, Switzerland and 30 other countries but at least a sign that more of us are eating better, getting regular checkups and following doctors' advice.
Now for the bad news: These steady gains in life expectancy may be short-lived, due to the chronic levels of obesity among the nation's teenagers and young adults. Some experts fear this deep-seated problem ultimately could slow down and even reverse these steady gains in life expectancy.
Statistics paint a grim picture of U.S. obesity levels among young people. Currently, some 32 percent of U.S. children are overweight or obese - three times what it was 30 years ago.
Data generated by a series of studies are driving home a strong case that obesity is a major factor behind premature death and illness among overweight and obese children later in life - something health professionals have suspected for a long time. Studies show these children face a considerably higher risk of death much earlier in life from several chronic, obesity-related diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and certain forms of cancer.
For example, a study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health, published in the July 18, 2006 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine, found that being overweight at 18 is associated with an increased risk of premature death in younger and middle-aged women.
A more recent study by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health revealed that people who already were overweight between the ages of 14 to 19 years faced an increased mortality rate from a range of chronic diseases as adults.
Researchers associated with these studies have noted significantly higher mortality and disease among these people even as early as their fifties - findings that hold serious implications not only for those directly affected but also for their families and the U.S. health care system.
The strain on family members caring for these relatives comparatively early in life will likely be incalculable. Some families already have begun feeling the emotional and financial strain.
Experts also fear the heavy toll this disease is exacting on Americans will become readily apparent in coming years as the progress in life expectancy begins to slow and ultimately reverse.
Some experts believe a kind of dichotomy may arise in the future in which a growing number of more health-conscious Americans live well into their 90s and even past 100, while others succumb to obesity-related diseases much earlier in life.
In fact, the median age of life expectancy, whether it rises, falls or levels off in years to come may turn out to be an empty number not really reflective of what's happening in the general population.
How could that be? Back to that anomaly: The segment of the population that takes care of itself lives far beyond the median life expectancy, while the other, more obese segment succumbs to obesity-related diseases, dying many years before this median age.