Is Life Expectancy Going Down?

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According to this life expectancy calculator, I should plan on living to 102 years old---a result of quite a lot of factors, including the fact that my family is particularly long-lived and cancer-free. Not sure I buy into these types of calculator (but they are morbid fun), but the general topic of life expectancy has been hot in the news lately. Some sources are claiming that the upward-creeping life expectancy that developed nations have been enjoying for decades might come to a screeching halt, or even worse, begin to decline. The subject of much finger-pointing is, unsurprisingly, rising obesity rates.

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Dr Peter Bradley, the director of public health in Suffolk, said: "If you become obese when you are young then your life expectancy will be considerably less."

He added: "This hasn't happened in hundreds of years. Even during the Second World War life expectancy continued to go up."

Dr Colin Ware, the chairman of the National Obesity Forum, said: "We could be looking at a generation with shorter life expectancies than their parents, which is an alarming prospect.

"The biggest threat is Type 2 diabetes, which we are starting to see in large numbers in adolescents. We could also see levels of heart disease, which have been falling for 30 years, begin to rise."

While those quotes were specific to the UK, a similar, if not worse trend is expected to be seen in the US.

The U.S. life span has been steadily increasing -- although the rate of increase has slowed during the last 30 years. How long can we live? We may not get to find out, suggest S. Jay Olshansky, PhD, of the University of Illinois in Chicago; David S. Ludwig, MD, PhD, of Children's Hospital in Boston; and colleagues.

The researchers calculate that in the first half of this century, U.S. life expectancy will level off or get shorter. Yes, medical advances will reduce death rates from various diseases. But they predict that onrushing disaster will overshadow all these advances.

"The childhood obesity epidemic is an impending catastrophe," Ludwig tells WebMD. "Nothing like this has happened before. It will overwhelm any other changes we will make to affect longevity."

The above quote refers to a 2005 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine by Olshansky et al, entitled "A potential decline in life expectancy in the United States in the 21st century."

It is hard for me to judge whether these studies are doomsday exaggerations, or signs on the wall that we should be paying attention to. No one doubts that childhood obesity is on the rise--even if some do pooh-pooh the health consequences therein--but I wonder if there is much that can be done on a governmental level to change the minds and eating habits of Americans. The previous news piece also contained this quote, perhaps giving a reason for optimism:

"The U.S. lifespan has shown remarkably steady progress for a century in the U.S. And we have demonstrated that when we get to a point where lifestyle factors seriously affect national mortality, we are able to move in the proper direction."

As an example, Preston points to the epidemic of cigarette smoking that set back U.S. life expectancy in the 1950s and 1960s. A huge public effort cut smoking rates -- and Americans' life spans renewed their upward march.

I'm not quite sure that I buy that, since the mindset of tobacco smoking vs. food intake is a very different one. You either smoke or you don't, and the health impact of smoking has been well-documented and the disinformation train has been largely stopped. However, people *need* food to survive. Our body tells us when we are hungry, and we feel pleasure at satisfying that basic human need. It isn't as black and white as quitting smoking--reducing obesity is likely more about subtle and gradual changes to diet and lifestyle over time. And the disinformation train about sugars, fats, carbs, etc is rampant in 'food science' and health, and from both sides of the fence (fat denialists as well as odd diet gurus and junk food marketing). Even the government is not a disinterested party when it comes to telling us what to eat, as could be easily argued by the FDA's sources of input re: the food pyramid and what they allow to constitute a healthy lunch in public schools.

It will be interesting to observe over my lifetime (102 years should be enough...) whether the authors predictions come true---or if the developed world rallies to the cause of improving health as it did with anti-smoking campaigns.


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It's certainly possible for life expectancy in a relatively well-off country to diminish because of the population's bad life choices. IIRC, Russia's life expectancy for males has dropped substantially because of a high level of alcohol abuse. I wouldn't be surprised to see China's life expectancy drop because of a high rate of smoking. Obesity is somewhat more complex, and the cause of the increase is not entirely sorted out. Choice and amount of food intake are responsible, but also activity (not just exercise, but activity of daily living), alcohol use, family background, genetic susceptibility, emotional health and more. Countering this would be far more difficult than a stop-smoking campaign.

By T. Bruce McNeely (not verified) on 07 Mar 2008 #permalink

why doesn't the US gov't do much of anything to promote better eating habits in people? because 'big food' corporations (kraft, etc) have lobbyists that line politicians pockets better than do scientists and 'better health through proper living' advocates. yes - i admit to being slightly jaded by the current state of american politics - even in light of the what is being billed as the most 'refreshing' panel of candidates in 40 years (only because people cheer for obama like the did for jfk).

'you either smoke or you don't' *(or you second-hand smoke)* second hand eating would be weird.

yes, i'm an ex-smoker, and i'm slightly disgusted at myself for making a second-hand smoke gripe here.

why am I not surprised? The decline of the physical condition of the American population in the past 50 years is nothing short of staggering. Are you guys trying to beat the Roman record for hero to zero? Up here in Canada we stay fit wading through snowbanks.

The calculator wants me to gain 30 lbs? Strange.

Just let insurance charge more for obese people, give them some financial incentives to lay off the twinkies.

A couple of things you ought to investigate if you want to get to the bottom of this : (By evidence, I mean peer reviewed studies)
a) Find evidence that childhood obesity actually does lead to lower lifespans.(There is none)
b) Find evidence that any type of dietary intervention in an otherwise healthy adult increases lifespan.(There is none)
c) Find evidence that weight loss in an obese adult increases lifespan(There is none).
d) Find evidence that we are eating more calories a day since 1970(There is none).
e) Find evidence that we are 'less active' every day(There is none, if you could even define such a thing.)

You'll soon realize most of our proof of our 'unhealthy lifestyles' is nothing more than anecdotal and based mostly on discriminatory stereotypes... Sound familiar?

We need to give kids an appetite suppressant. Some kind of stimulant, that can be quickly released into the bloodstream.

Yes, we need to start junior on a course of Marlboros. It might make him cough a little, but by golly- it'll do wonders for halting those mid-day calorific cravings.

By Christianjb (not verified) on 07 Mar 2008 #permalink

Your comment about "fat denialists" was spot on. The online discussion of nutrition has been swamped by shills and advocates of THINCS, the Weston A. Price Foundation, Mercola, Atkins, Eat Right for your Type, and on and on and on. It has become an almost impossible task to determine a sensible diet, because for every point in such a diet there is a clique of idiots online screaming that it will kill you.

And don't get me started on the anti aerobic exercise SuperSlow(TM) crowd.

Up here in Canada we stay fit wading through snowbanks.

And here I thought you Canadians stayed fit running away from Polar Bears.

I thought Canadians burned off the Hortons and Labatts by cross country skiing, and by molesting beavers in their dens.

Jgraham, the supposed lack of research linking obesity and ill health effects is part of the disinformation train of denialists. At the expense of reinventing the wheel (try typing in 'obesity' and 'diabetes' or 'cardiovasular disease' or 'lifespan' into PubMed and see what you get), I'll defer to Dr. Mark Hoonagle, MD who has blogged extensively on the topic of obesity, health, denialists, and peer reviewed research from the point of a medical professional.

he UN Office of Drugs and Crime reports that Canada now has the highest proportion of marijuana users in the industrialized world at 16.8% for those between 15 and 64 years of age.

To follow up Laurent's comment, maybe this is how Canadians stay fit.

By T. Bruce McNeely (not verified) on 07 Mar 2008 #permalink

Wow... the biggest factor I have against me is GENDER... Not sure if I should be happy or sad about that :) All in all my life expectancy is 84, which doesn't seem bad, but rather paltry in comparison to Shelley's. Maybe rabid blogging adds the twenty-odd years?

BTW I'm a PhD in hearing research also, so that can't explain the difference (half expected it to count against, actually).

By Erik Larsen (not verified) on 13 Mar 2008 #permalink