Obesity and Life Expectancy
By CWK Network Producer
“I remember dreading going to the doctors because they just told me how overweight I was.”
Sixteen-year-old Catherine attends a Jazzercise class five times a week. She’s trying to dance her way out of a problem she’s had since she was a little girl: obesity.
“I never knew what portion sizes were, or when I was full, because I just ate to the max,” she says.
In the third grade, Catherine needed special clothing tailored to fit. In the sixth grade, she weighed more than 200 pounds.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the problem of teenage obesity is now at its highest level in U.S. history. About 15% of teens are obese today, compared to just 5% in the 1960s.
“And I don’t want to live like that. I want to be active, I want to do a lot of things, I want to meet people, I want to travel,” Catherine says. “Just like everyone else, I have dreams.”
But those dreams may be cut short if she doesn’t lose some weight.
But those dreams are at risk.
Researchers at the National Institutes of Health have been following almost 5000 children in Arizona for over 40 years. The studies show that the heaviest kids are twice as likely to die young… from cancer, infection, heart disease… diabetes…
“[The formulas] very, very effectively show that the younger you are, and the more obese you are, the more years of life you lose at the end,” says Dr. Ranveig Elvebakk, a bariatric physician. “It is anywhere from three to 20 years on the person who is 20 years of age and overweight.”
The health effects of obesity are well known: heart disease, diabetes, stroke and other chronic problems that cause premature death. The earlier you catch a weight problem, the easier it will be for your child to change and the less damage the weight will cause on his or her body.
Elvebakk says it is important to remember that the epidemic of obesity is NOT a problem of genetics.
“It is our culture that makes us fat; it’s not genes,” she says. “Our gene pool has remained unchanged over the past 59,000 years. There is no change in genes over the last 10 years. What makes us overweight is our lifestyle and the way we think about food.”
She says parents should insist on exercise and nutrition from an early age. But in Catherine’s family, it’s the kids who are now asking for better nutrition.
“When I go to the store, I used to buy all this kind of junk food and keep it in the cabinet for them, and now they tell me no, you’re not supposed to bring that home,” explains Lorraine Allen, Catherine’s mother.
With nutrition and exercise, Catherine is slowly shedding the pounds. She’s trading them in for more years on the end of her life – and more time to fulfill her dreams.
Healthy Lifestyle Begins with Exercise, Balanced Diet
People who are severely obese as adolescents or in their early 20s can expect to have significantly shorter lives, according to research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Researchers focused on subjects whose body mass index (BMI) was more than 24, the reference for adults aged 18 to 85. BMI is calculated based on weight and height. People who have a BMI over 30 are considered obese. The study, based on years of federal health survey data of thousands of people, examined the extent to which obesity could affect years of life lost. For every degree of being overweight, younger adults generally had greater years of life lost than older adults. Specifically, it was discovered that severely obese (BMI over 45) young females could lose four to eight years from their life expectancy. The results for males were even more astounding. They could have 12 to 20 years cut off of their lives!
Why is obesity such a problem for today’s children and adolescents? The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites the following causes for childhood obesity:
- Overweight in children and adolescents is generally caused by lack of physical activity, unhealthy eating patterns or a combination of the two, with genetics and lifestyle both playing important roles in determining a child’s weight.
- Society has become very sedentary. Television, computer and video games contribute to children’s inactive lifestyles.
- Forty-three percent of adolescents watch more than two hours of television each day.
- Children, especially girls, become less active as they move through adolescence.
Because diabetes, hypertension and other obesity-related chronic diseases are now more common in adolescents, the recent study results highlight the importance of weight control in the nation’s youth through more physical activity and better dietary habits. Several organizations have found that today’s youth are considered the most inactive generation in history. In fact, the National Association for Sports & Physical Education reports that only 25% of all kids in the United States are physically active. And since daily physical education has been eliminated from schools in all but one state (Illinois), the burden now rests on the shoulders of parents to encourage their children to be more active.
What Parents Need to Know
With the CDC reporting that almost a third of children and adolescents are obese or overweight, it is now more important than ever to encourage your child to maintain a high level of physical activity. The American Council on Exercise offers the following tips for incorporating exercise into your child’s daily activities:
- Set an example for your child and treat exercise as something to be done on a regular basis, like brushing your teeth or cleaning your room.
- Invite your child to participate in vigorous household tasks, such as gardening, washing the car or raking leaves.
- Go biking, rock climbing or inline skating with your child.
- Jump rope or shoot baskets with your child.
- Plan outings and activities that involve some walking, like a trip to the zoo, a nature hike or even a trip to the mall.
The other component of maintaining a healthy lifestyle is practicing proper eating habits. Instead of high-calorie foods and snacks, provide your child with fruits and low- or non-fat foods. The American Obesity Association (AOA) does not recommend dieting for teens because it can prevent them from growing to their full height. Instead, it suggests that your teen “eat lean” and try some of these healthy snack options to get the nutrition he or she needs:
- Dried fruit mixed with sunflower seeds
- Bagels with peanut butter
- Low-fat cheese and crackers
- Baby carrots dipped in low-fat salad dressing
- Baked chips, low-fat cheese and salsa
- Fat-free popcorn with parmesan cheese
- Yogurt smoothie
- Frozen bananas
- Fresh fruit
Exercise and nutrition go hand in hand, but without your support, your adolescent will have a tough time maintaining a healthy lifestyle. The U.S. Surgeon General’s Office offers the following strategies for helping your teen stay fit physically and emotionally:
- Let your child know that he or she is loved and appreciated whatever his or her weight. An overweight child probably knows better than anyone else that he or she has a weight problem. Overweight children need support, acceptance and encouragement from their parents.
- Focus on your child’s health and positive qualities, not your child’s weight.
- Try not to make your child feel different if he or she is overweight but focus on gradually changing your family’s physical activity and eating habits.
- Be a good role model for your child. If your child sees you enjoying healthy foods and physical activity, he or she is more likely to do the same now and for the rest of his or her life.
- Realize that an appropriate goal for many overweight children is to maintain their current weight while growing normally in height.