If you come across a dead canary sometime soon, you’ll know why shortly. U.S. health officials have established that Americans will be living shorter lives in the coming decades. For the first time in our recorded non-wartime history, U.S. lives are getting shorter — in contrast to most other First and Second-World countries. While most other industrialized countries life expectancies will be increasing, American life spans will soon approach levels seen in Mexico and the Czech Republic. At the same time, there is a better-than-even chance that South Korean women will live to an average of 90 years old by 2030, which would be the first time a population will break the 90-year barrier, according to the research published in The Lancet. What the heck is going on?
The reasons for the United States’ lag are well known. It has the highest infant and maternal mortality rates of any of the countries in the study, and the highest obesity rate. It is the only one without universal health insurance coverage and has the “largest share of unmet health-care needs due to financial costs,” according to the researchers. They also noted that Americans have bad nutrition habits, high rates of homicide and lack universal insurance.
This isn’t particularly new or perplexing news, as in 2016, the U.S. government reported that life expectancy had declined in 2015 for the first time since 1993 as death rates for eight of the 10 leading causes of death, including heart disease, rose. And in 2015, Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton documented an unexpected jump in mortality rates among white middle-aged Americans. That trend was blamed on what are sometimes called diseases of despair: overdoses, alcoholism and suicide.
In contrast to the United States, South Korea “has a remarkable investment in early childhood nutrition,” has been taking advantage of medical advances and technology across its population and has some of the world’s lowest obesity and hypertension rates. The researchers estimated a 57 percent chance that the nation’s women will live an average of more than 90 years by 2030 and a better than 95 percent chance that its men will survive beyond 80 (along with men in Australia and Switzerland).
This newest life expectancy study is consistent with another recent authoritative global study found that children today run a mile 90 seconds slower than did their counterparts 30 years ago. The root cause: they are getting too fat. The research findings were based upon data spanning 46 years and involving more than 25 million children in 28 countries and largely confirm what other smaller studies have similarly indicated. The problem is largely one of Western countries, but some parts of Asia like South Korea, mainland China and Hong Kong are also seeing this phenomenon. And they are consistent with a number of other such studies.
Lest you think that we’re overreacting, ponder these findings:
- The study is the first to show that kids’ cardiovascular fitness has declined around the globe since about 1975.
- In the United States, kids’ cardiovascular endurance fell an average 6 percent per decade between 1970 and 2000.
- Across nations, endurance has declined consistently by about 5 percent every decade.
- Kids today are roughly 15 percent less fit from a cardiovascular standpoint than their parents were as youngsters.
- Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years.
- In 2010, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese
- A 2014 study shows that 1/3 of all U.S. children between the ages of 9-11 have elevated cholesterol levels which presage increased risks for stroke and cardiovascular disease in their adult years.
These findings reveal some serious future problems for the upcoming generation. There is an undisputed direct correlation of childhood fitness with adult health. Being physically inactive in childhood can have serious health implications later in life. Doctors and researchers repeatedly warn us that if a young person is generally unfit now, then they are more likely to develop conditions like diabetes and heart disease later in life. This is not controverted data. Other recent studies suggest that feeding of infants can substantially increase obesity tendencies, including early use of formula, introduction of solid food before four months and bottle feeding before sleep. And a July 2014 study found that lack of exercise is the main culprit behind the skyrocketing obesity rates. Specifically, it documented that in the last 20 years, the number of women in the U.S. who reported no physical activity in their free time increased from about 19 percent in 1994 to nearly 52 percent in 2010. In men, the number rose from about 11 percent in 1994 to 44 percent in 2010. Meanwhile, the average BMI (body mass index) increased by 0.37 percent per year in both men and women, rising most dramatically in women ages 18to 39. During the same time period, overall caloric intake did not change.
The connection between reduced exercise and deteriorating healthfulness is no longer controversial. However, what is controversial is how to address this problem. Some argue it is caused by poor dietary practices. Others point to reduced quality of food (processed, high sugar, high fat, addictive convenience foods etc). While numerous studies highlight the need for greater physical activity. The good news is the answer is “all of the above”. Diet, exercise, self-esteem and education all play a role in childhood health. Because children are imbued with an “invulnerability” instinct that blinds them to future consequences, the burden of instilling healthy lifestyles in our children falls squarely on the shoulders of parents.
Consider the recently reported case of a Type-2 diabetes sufferer. She was 3 years old and morbidly obese. After 6 months of lifestyle changes monitored by doctors, she was “cured”. For many people, lifestyle changes really do make a difference. The doctors replaced her soda and fast food diet with balanced home cooked meals and water.
- Independently of sedentary time, men with the lowest levels of physical activity were 52% more likely to develop heart failure, compared with men with the highest levels of physical activity.
- Regardless of how much they exercised, men who were sedentary for 5 hours or more outside of work were 34% more likely to develop heart failure.
- Men who spent more than 5 hours a day sitting outside of work and exercised the least had double the risk of heart failure, compared with counterparts who sat for less than 2 hours a day and exercised the most.
All the signs are pointing not just to dead canaries but far too many prematurely dead Americans. The causes are pretty clear. The reasons why Americans aren’t taking the road to health remain unclear.