Self-Portrait with Death as a Fiddler

U.S. Life Expectancy Down: Can We Blame Obesity?

U.S. Life ExpectancyFor the first time in more than 20 years, life expectancy dropped in the U.S. last year. New data from the CDC shows an increase in deaths from eight of its top ten causes. CDC Director Tom Frieden was blunt in his assessment:

We’re seeing the ramifications of the increase in obesity. And we’re seeing that in an increase in heart disease.

Senior Research Scientist Stephen Sidney of Kaiser expressed similar concerns:

It’s a definite milestone in the wrong direction, and the concern a lot of us have is that it reflects largely the approximately three-decade-long epidemic of obesity,

Earlier this year, Sidney documented stalling progress against cardiovascular deaths with a study published in JAMA Cardiology. Foreshadowing today’s news, he said:

It is likely that the dual epidemics of obesity and diabetes, which began around 1985, are the major contributors to the deceleration in the decline of cardiovascular disease, heart disease and stroke death rates. If these trends continue, important public health goals, such as those set by the American Heart Association to reduce cardiovascular and stroke mortality by 20 percent from 2010 to 2020, may not be reached.

Candidly, the attribution of this drop in life expectancy to obesity is just well-informed speculation. The speculation began 11 years ago, when Jay Olshansky and colleagues published an analysis in the New England Journal of Medicine. They concluded:

From our analysis of the effect of obesity on longevity, we conclude that the steady rise in life expectancy during the past two centuries may soon come to an end.

But we cannot afford to stop with well-informed speculation. Much of our efforts to reverse the growing rates of obesity are based on speculation about what will work. So far, those efforts have been ineffective. And now, it may be showing up in our mortality rates.

So the time has come to get more curious. We need more curiosity about the biology of obesity. We need more curiosity about what’s causing an excess of it. But most of all, we need more curiosity to drive the search for what will reverse it.

Absent that curiosity, we will continue to guess at what will work. We will likely get more disappointing news, like the latest news that life expectancy has dropped.

Click here for the report from CDC, here for more from the Washington Post, and here for more from the Wall Street Journal.

Self-Portrait with Death as a Fiddler, painting by Arnold Böcklin / WikiArt

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December 9, 2016

2 Responses to “U.S. Life Expectancy Down: Can We Blame Obesity?”

  1. December 09, 2016 at 9:57 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    Ted – I’m going to give you a special gift here–hope! And building on your calls for more curiosity.

    Oliver Kershaw pointed this out to me–I just can’t wait to get the time to read the whole thing.


    • December 09, 2016 at 3:09 pm, Ted said:

      That is a good seed of hope.