Americans Living Longer but not Better Lives

We are all living longer, but the quality of life we can expect as we get older is declining, say researchers who have studied US life expectancy trends.  Old age looks bleaker, with more illness than it did 30 years ago.  Moreover, the fault lies with our lifestyles, especially our eating habits and our reluctance to exercise.

The good news is that anyone who stays slim and fit can look forward to a healthy, happy old age with minimal risk of diabetes.  In fact, slimmer Americans are responsible for raising the average life expectancy stats, which means they are living even longer than tubbier neighbors.

In 1960, the average American could expect to live to 69.8, and by 1961, this had risen above 70 and has continued to rise steadily.  By 2009, the average American could expect to live to 78.7 years – but the amount of time he will probably stay healthy is declining and it is increasingly probable that his latter years will be filled with illness and misery.

The rising levels of obesity are to blame for increasing diabetes numbers, says epidemiologist Dr Solveig Cunningham ofAtlanta’sEmoryUniversity, and his team.  With over a third of Americans now classified as obese at a BMI at 30 or above, Type 2 diabetes is rampaging through the population.  Once a disease associated with old age, it is hitting people earlier and bringing health complications that shorten their lives.  Potentially fatal complications of diabetes include heart disease, strokes, and kidney failure.

Dr Cunningham’s team studied the cases of 143,765 people who took part in a National Health Interview Survey between 1980 and 1989, and 150,718 people who took part in another between 2000 and 2004.  Of these, 507 people in the earlier survey and 1,366 in the later survey were previously diagnosed as diabetics.  As these statistics show, diabetes had already started to increase dramatically in the population, although the team felt some of the increase might have been due to improved diagnosis techniques in recent years.

The researchers analyzed the figures and concluded that a man aged 18 in the 21st century was almost twice as likely to have a diagnosis of diabetes during his life as a same aged man in the years between 1980 and 1989.  A woman’s risk of being diagnosed as diabetic was 50% higher was she was obese than if she was not.  Therefore, men classified as obese potentially had 5.6 fewer years of healthy life diabetes-free between the 1980s and the 2000s, and women had 2.5 fewer years.

However, the good news for non-obese citizens is that these results were confined to the obese, those with a BMI of 30 or more.  For merely overweight people with a BMI between 25 and 30, or for people of a normal healthy weight and a BMI below 25, disease-free life expectancy increased.

“All of the observed reductions in diabetes-free life expectancy at the population level were actually due to increases in diabetes only among obese individuals,” the scientists reported in the Diabetes Care journal. They also found that obese people were at increased risk of having a diagnosis with diabetes in the 2000s as compared to 1980s because they are even heavier now on average, with obese individuals now 3.4% fatter than they would have been in the 1980s.

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