Let's hope that study out of Health Affairs in June is a wake-up call for hospitals, clinicians, researchers and policymakers—not to mention parents, grandparents and anybody else who care about the young people among us. The study indicates that for the first time in the nation's history average life spans will be shorter for young Americans than for their elders.
The reason couldn't be more straightforward: Americans born after 1965 are more likely to be overweight than people born before. Moreover, the age at which those younger generations hit the point of being overweight is far earlier than it was for previous generations.
Research cited in the Health Affairs article shows the average age at which at least 20 percent of a generation reached the threshold for obesity. For Americans born between 1926 and 1935, it was ages 50 to 59; for those born between 1936 and 1945, it was 40 to 49; for those born between 1946 and 1965, it was 30 to 39; and for those born after 1965, it is 20 to 29. That's an astonishing trend.
And the bottom line is tragic: Not only are Generation Xers, Gen Yers and the kids coming up behind them developing chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease at higher rates, they also will bear those illnesses for a much longer portion of their lives, so the toll on their bodies will be that much worse.
Some individuals scoff at efforts to bring attention to calorie counts on restaurant food, or to improve nutritional options in schools, or to encourage people to occasionally put down the remote controls and IPads and exercise more than just their thumbs. As though being educated about an issue and understanding our choices somehow limit our freedom to behave anyway we want. All it really does is take away any claim of ignorance when we choose to behave foolishly.
The less cynical among us, including many hospitals, are taking rational steps to raise awareness and help their communities confront what is unarguably an epidemic of obesity. Among other things, they're sponsoring community-wide weight-loss contests, going into schools to work with teachers and nurses to get kids excited about fitness and nutrition, conducting 5K walks and health fairs, and even setting up farmers' markets on their own campuses to increase access to healthful foods.
Those efforts do make a difference, but so far their impact is limited, as studies—and a brief walk around any community—clearly illustrate. Will they have a cumulative, long-term impact? Can we do more? These are not rhetorical questions. I would appreciate hearing your thoughts about the obesity issue in general and your ideas for what might be more effective ways to combat it.
Every generation works to make sure their children and grandchildren have better lives than they did. Shouldn't we be doing everything we can to make sure ours also continue to have longer lives than we do?