Are lifespans really getting shorter?


It has been claimed (by Michelle Obama and Jamie Oliver, among others) that the current generation of children will have a shorter lifespan than that of their parents due to the increase in childhood obesity. So is there any truth in that?

No. Over the last four decades life expectancy globally has risen by 11 years for men and 12 years for women, but we are paying the price with more mental and physical health problems, according to the biggest ever appraisal of the global burden of disease. The study (completed in 2010) showed rapid decline in deaths from infectious diseases and malnutrition and the vastly improved survival of small children.

Most deaths in the world are now from heart disease and strokes, which killed an estimated 12.9 million people in 2010, a quarter of the global total. So it’s accurate to say that, worldwide, the number of the current generation suffering from obesity and obesity-related illness is higher than the ones that have preceded it. And it’s true that strokes and heart disease are intrinsically linked to obesity. But there is more to it than that.

Despite being the main killers, death rates from heart attacks and strokes are actually going down. In the UK, for example, the odds of dying from a heart attack or stroke in 1980 were 16 percent. By 2010 it was only four percent — down by a factor of four. This trend follows in other parts of the world. Fewer people are dying from these problems and it’s largely because the current treatment for heart conditions is hugely improved on was available in the past.

Overall, the planet’s population is living longer, and, according to the World Health Organisation, there are multiple factors that are contributing to this. In poor countries, fewer children are dying before their fifth birthday due to advances against premature birth, birth complications and childhood infections.

Plus cleaner water, better vaccination programs, better medicines, improved medical training, the fall in the number of smokers, all contribute. Meanwhile, in First-World countries fewer people are dying of heart disease and stroke before reaching 60, thanks to blood pressure control and other preventative efforts.

So we are, on average, living longer. In fact, only last month it was announced that in Japan the life expectancy for a man his risen to over 80 for the first time, which is frankly staggering. But while we are living longer there is little to suggest that the current generation will be living a healthier life. The key thing is not longevity; it’s quality.

People are living longer but accumulating an increasing number of heath conditions. Obesity leads to type-2 diabetes and high blood pressure and this part of the world is the ground zero of diabetes. In terms of percent of population aged 20-79 that is diabetic, the top seven worst places are in the Middle East and in all seven of those countries the percentage has increased from 2010 to the latest figures in 2012.

The probability worldwide of dying before the age of 50 is half of what it was 40 years ago, but now the world faces issues like obesity, diabetes, kidney disease and neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s, which are all on the rise.

The likes of Jamie Oliver were wrong to say that this generation will have a shorter lifespan than the previous one (the opposite is true), but if the current trends continue, then those extra years afforded them are quite likely to be pretty miserable ones.

For Esquire magazine – for PDF click here – 172_esq_056_p172_exit notes_3522806

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