We are living longer yet growing less healthy. That is the paradoxical conclusion reached by researchers who have found successive generations building up medical problems worse than those faced by their forbears.
“The prevalence of obesity in our youngest generation of men and women at the age of 40 is similar to that of our oldest generation at the age of 55. This means that the younger generation is 15 years ahead of the older generation and will be exposed to their obesity for a longer time.”
Poor diet and lack of exercise blamed for increase in
obesity, blood pressure and diabetes.
Life expectancy has grown dramatically in recent decades as a result of improved nutrition, housing and medical care. But today’s 40-year-olds are experiencing problems of excess weight, high blood pressure and diabetes similar to those now in their mid-fifties.
The younger generation is thus 15 years ahead of the older generation on the pathway to increasing frailty, disability and ill health. Ultimately, the effect is likely to be a slowing of the increase in life expectancy or even a reversal, experts say.
For more than a decade health practitioners have warned that our existing way of life is killing us softly, due to an excess of fat, sugar and salt – and inactivity. Two-thirds of the population are overweight or obese and, on present trends, that will rise to 90 per cent by 2050.
Obesity already causes an estimated 9,000 premature deaths a year, and health practitioners fear its relentless rise could mean the current generation will be the first to die before their parents.
Researchers who followed 6,000 individuals for up to 16 years have charted the consequences of the calorie-rich lifestyle and found the adults of today are less “metabolically” healthy than in the past.
The study was conducted in the town of Doetinchem in the Netherlands beginning in 1987. The researchers compared the health of those in their twenties, thirties, forties and fifties and then followed up each group to find out how one generation compared with another born a decade earlier.
At the start of the study, 40 per cent of men in their thirties were overweight. But 11 years later, the proportion had grown to 52 per cent among the next generation of men in their thirties. Among women, their weight did not change until the most recent generations when the proportion who were obese doubled in a decade. These “generation shifts” were also seen in high blood pressure, with the prevalence of the condition increasing in each generation for both men and women. The only exceptions were the two most recent generations of men. A similar increase was seen in diabetes in succeeding generations of men, though not of women.
There was no generation shift in high cholesterol, but levels of “good” HDL cholesterol did rise in the oldest two generations. Gerben Hulsegge, of the Dutch National Institute for Public Health, who led the study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, said the impact of obesity in youth was a critical factor.
As smoking has declined in recent decades, there is also likely to be a shift from smoking-related illnesses such as lung cancer to obesity-related diseases such as diabetes.
Dr Hulsegge said: “The decrease in smoking and improved healthcare are important driving forces behind greater life expectancy of younger generations. But it is also possible in the distant future, as a result of current trends in obesity, that the rate of increase in life expectancy may well slow down.”