Lifespan Linked to Diet?

Chronic diseases related to diet and obesity could shorten lifespan for many.


You've probably heard that you are what you eat. When it comes to obesity, there's a big problem.

A JAMA Viewpoint article noted that obesity is shortening American lives. Death rates for obesity-related conditions are on the increase, and may cause a decline in life expectancy.

More than 78.6 million adults--34.9 percent of the US--are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Author David S. Ludwig, MD, PhD, noted that in the first nine months of 2015, the CDC reported age-adjusted death rates for obesity-related conditions climbed significantly compared to the same period in 2014.

Specifically, mortality rates increased by one percent for heart disease and diabetes, three percent for chronic liver disease and four percent for stroke. Alzheimer’s disease showed the biggest jump at 19 percent in one year.

Dr. Ludwig is a pediatric endocrinologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. He is also the director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center.

After the Civil War, advances in medical care, a dependable food supply and improved sanitation nearly doubled life expectancy in the US. By 1980 men had a life expectancy of 71 years and women 78 years. With the obesity epidemic, which began in the 1970s, increases in life expectancy began to slow and has continued.

Dr. Ludwig noted that increasingly powerful treatments and medications are in use to treat conditions such as elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. Surgical procedures are used for heart disease and dialysis for kidney failure. The new data from the CDC indicates that treatments and technology may not be able to compensate in the future.

Obesity, according to Dr. Ludwig, is thought of as strictly a matter of calories. However, more recent research indicates that many factors are at play in the obesity epidemic.

Basic nutrition research is lacking and the focus of most research is on new medications. Political influence and lobbying by the food industry has affected regulatory development and expert recommendations.

The new CDC data may be an early warning sign and action should not wait on further research, according to Dr. Ludwig. He noted that obesity rates are increasing among children.

Dr. Ludwig said that added sugars and highly processed carbohydrates clearly increase the risks of obesity. Dr. Ludwig recommends policies, reforms and education directed toward increasing consumption of high-quality protein, fruits, vegetables and other whole foods.

The article was published in the April issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.