Sounding the Alarm: Obesity Impacts Life Expectancy in the US

October 24, 2018

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blog_soundalarmSince the World Health Organization was founded in 1948, it has been measuring and predicting and the life expectancy of people in almost every country across the globe. Over the years, the conditions for life expectancy have evolved from focusing solely on predicted birthrates and infant mortality to include ongoing wars, healthcare systems, and the prevalence of chronic conditions.

We have some alarming news for you, America. Our life expectancy ranking is tanking.

According to a study conducted by the University of Washington, the US will drop precipitously to 64th place in life expectancy in 2040, a 21-spot drop from 43rd from their 2016 ranking. For high-income nations, this is the largest drop in the study and implies that Americans born in 2040 will not live much longer than those born in 2016.

In the 1960s-1980s, we were regularly ranked in the mid to high teens, indicating a healthy population. But now, while life expectancy across the world is estimated to increase by an average of 4.4 years between now and 2020, life expectancy in the US is only projected to increase by 1.1 years to 79.8 years.

Where did the US go so wrong?

Research points to an increasing prevalence of chronic conditions, especially obesity, which now affects 39.8% of US adults. Though obesity isn’t the only factor in that drop, it has definitely played a starring role in the last two decades. According to the life expectancy study, in addition to tobacco and alcohol use, the factors that contribute the most to premature death are high body mass index (BMI), high blood pressure, and high blood sugar levels (the latter two being common co-morbidities of obesity).

For the first time, Spain will take the top spot in life expectancy at 85.8 year, edging out longtime champion, Japan at 85.7 years. Common attributes among these nations are nutritious diets dominated by vegetables, fruit, fish, and moderate amounts of meat. These cultures also place value on social support and community as well as higher levels of physical activity compared to those in the United States.

With these kinds of healthy behaviors, it should come as no surprise that Spain and Japan rank far down the list in national obesity rates, 63rd and 166th, respectively. Unfortunately, the United States holds the dubious distinction as the leader among industrial nations in obesity rates. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, without meaningful intervention, the obesity rate in the U.S. will reach nearly 50% by 2030.

Somehow the US has slipped into behaviors and built environments that support obesity and not vitality. As researchers corroborate that factors in mortality are shifting from infectious diseases to chronic conditions, we must do our very best to decrease the rate of obesity.

But is our fate sealed as a country, destined to slide down in life expectancy even further? Or, is there something we can do to change this?

The good news is that it is very possible for Americans to turn around our mortality trends. The hard news is that it’s not going to happen overnight. But for the health of our families and country, we need to try.

At the heart of the issue is our everyday behavior. Multiple unhealthy behaviors add up to an unhealthy mind and body, which ultimately affects our life expectancy. To turn back the clock, it’s important to adopt behaviors that fight disease and promote longevity, which starts with a healthy weight. But as anyone who has tried to lose weight before can attest, changing daily habits can be quite difficult.

One reason successfully adopting new behaviors might be challenging is mindset. People often believe that modifying behavior occurs in a straightforward manner, with no failure along the way. However, it’s very common to hit some speedbumps on the path to change. In fact, encountering setbacks should be expected. The key is to stay positive, consistent, and persistent. Ultimately the change will come.

Now that we’ve established that the US in a danger zone of life expectancy stemming from chronic disease, and that a positive, realistic mindset is necessary to change behaviors, let’s talk about how we get back to where we used to be. That requires facing some cold, hard facts about where we are now.

As mentioned earlier, 39.8% of US adults now meet the medical diagnosis of obesity. If we want to increase life expectancy, we’ll need to cut that rate in half. That means we need to make a collective effort to impact some key statistics:

  • Only one in ten Americans consume the recommended daily amount of vegetables and fruits. To achieve and maintain any meaningful weight loss, that number must increase dramatically.
  • According to a June 2018 report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, only 23% of US adults get enough exercise. Exercise is great for losing weight, but critical for keeping it off in the long-term.
  • To reduce harmful cortisol levels down and increase daily energy levels, Americans need to take the time to reduce stress and get sufficient quality sleep. In 2017, the American Psychological Association reported that American stress levels rose from 4.8 to a 5.1 in 2017, reaching a 10-year high. And the National Sleep Foundation found that 45% of US adults experience poor sleep.

It may not be obvious from reading a bunch of statistics, but the difference in turning these numbers around is you. If each and every one of us made an individual effort to improve our nutrition, activity, and other health habits, we would be positively impacting our own life expectancy and raising our national ranking in the process.

As we transition towards the end of year, don’t wait for New Year’s to begin taking the steps necessary to improve your health. If we can start making better choices, we can move back up in life expectancy, individually and as a nation, making us a global model of good health and strength.

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