Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
January 25, 2022

Obesity threatens American lifespans

By SABRINA CHEN | September 8, 2016

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CMGLEE/CC-BY-SA-3.0 Life expectancy is under threat from obesity in the United States.

Recent studies have shown that Americans are living longer. However, this increased life expectancy may come hand in hand with an increase in years spent living with disability.

According to a recent study done at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences New Orleans School of Medicine (LSUHSC), the 78 million Americans who were born in the “baby boom” period following World War II will mostly live longer than their parents.

The analysis studied data from over 187 countries and looked at over 250 diseases and 50 risk factors for disease. It concluded that life expectancy in the United States has risen by over three years since 1990, from 75 to 78.6. The nation has, however, fallen from 27th to 20th among OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries in terms of overall health.

“I’m a baby boomer as well and to some degree statistically we do not seem to be as healthy,” Herbert Muncie, professor of family medicine at LSUHSC said according to The Wall Street Journal. “We seem to have much more chronic disease than our parents did.”

It has, in fact, been shown that for an average American, the years spent living with chronic disability (an indicator of quality of life), has only increased over the past 20 years. This is partially due to the aging of the population.

An earlier study conducted at the beginning of this year shows significant progress in reducing death rates for a variety of different diseases. The study also proved that for illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, kidney disease and Alzheimer’s disease, the death rate is on the rise. The study was published online by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). It was the first major analysis measuring health status for the United States in more than 15 years.

A decrease in quality of life and overall health also has significant implications for the American economy. Current annual health care amounts to nearly 18 percent of the gross domestic product, according to the American Medical Association. “Despite a level of health expenditures that would have seemed unthinkable a generation ago, the health of the U.S. population has improved only gradually and has fallen behind the pace of progress in many other wealthy nations,” said Harvey V. Fineberg, president of the Institute of Medicine, in an editorial accompanying the JAMA report.

Because the United States’ ranking has declined among the 34 OECD member countries within the past decade, this has put the United States at a disadvantage with regards to the global job market.

However, potential adjustments made by the U.S. population could address and alleviate this issue of chronic disability and overall unhealthy lifestyles. Better diets and smaller food portions would help to overcome disorders like diabetes and obesity. Increased physical activity, quitting smoking and better management of stress would lead to higher overall quality of life.

The JAMA study also found that poor dietary habits have overtaken smoking as the most important risk factor associated with years of life lost to disability. This result proved the importance of portion control and healthy eating to researchers.

According to trainer and nutritionist Harley Pasternak, who traveled the world to research for his novel, The 5-Factor World Diet, Americans eat far larger portions than people living in other countries. Pasternak added that as a nation, Americans do not make it a priority to eat locally and tend to add large amounts of salt, sugar and thickening agents to our food.

Pasternak added that in each of the most “healthily ranked” nations from around the world, people tend to walk a lot more than they do in the U.S., which is a natural form of exercise that sedentary Americans forego.

“Eat in a healthy manner, really get regular exercise and get those regular checkups,” Dr. Muncie said according to The Wall Street Journal. “It’s not so much the quantity of life which is important, but it is really the quality of life.”

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