Life expectancy at birth rose by a few years for both men and women in the last two decades of the 20th century. This has come at an enormous cost in the quality of life of our elders, for they are suffering with more pain and greater disability than ever before in last 15 years of life. People globally are living longer but chronic debilitating conditions are becoming more prevalent.
A recent Global Burden of Disease Study 2010 involved 486 authors in 50 countries who aimed to offer a comprehensive update on diseases and injuries since the last such report in 1990. It found the leading risk factor accounting for the disease burden in most developed nations is diet.
A reported published yesterday in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, analysed data on more than 6,000 individuals in the Doetinchem Cohort Study, which began in 1987 with follow-up examinations after six, 11, and 16 years. The principal risk factors measured were body weight, blood pressure, total cholesterol levels (for hypercholesterolaemia) and levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, which is considered “protective”.
The subjects were stratified by sex and generation at baseline into ten-year age groups (20, 30, 40, and 50 years); the follow-up analyses aimed to determine whether one generation had a different risk profile from a generation born ten years earlier -- what the investigators called a “generation shift”.
Results showed that the prevalence of overweight, obesity, and hypertension increased with age in all generations, but in general the more recently born generations had a higher prevalence of these risk factors than generations born ten years earlier. For example, 40% of the males who were in their 30s at baseline were classified as overweight; 11 years later the prevalence of overweight among the second generation of men in their 30s had increased to 52% (a statistically significant generational shift). In women these unfavourable changes in weight were only evident between the most recently born generations, in which the prevalence of obesity doubled in just 10 years.
Other findings from the study included:
- Unfavourable (and statistically significant) generation shifts in hypertension in both sexes between every consecutive generation (except for the two most recently born generations of men).
- Unfavourable generation shifts in diabetes between three of the four generations of men, but not of women.
- No generation shifts for hypercholesterolaemia, although favourable shifts in HDL cholesterol were only observed between the oldest two generations.
As for the overall picture, and based on the evidence of a “clear” shift in the prevalence of overweight and hypertension, the investigators emphasise that “the more recently born adult generations are doing worse than their predecessors”. Evidence to explain the changes is not clear, they add, but note studies reporting an increase in physical inactivity.
What do the findings mean for public health? First author Gerben Hulsegge from the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment emphasises the impact of obesity at a younger age. “For example,” he explains, “the prevalence of obesity in our youngest generation of men and women at the mean age of 40 is similar to that of our oldest generation at the mean age of 55. This means that this younger generation is ’15 years ahead’ of the older generation and will be exposed to their obesity for a longer time. So our study firstly highlights the need for a healthy body weight -- by encouraging increased physical activity and balanced diet, particularly among the younger generations.
“The findings also mean that, because the prevalence of smoking in high-income countries is decreasing, we are likely to see a shift in non-communicable disease from smoking-related diseases such as lung cancer to obesity-related diseases such as diabetes. This decrease in smoking prevalence and improved quality of health care are now important driving forces behind the greater life expectancy of younger generations, and it’s likely that in the near future life expectancy will continue to rise -- but it’s also possible that in the more distant future, as a result of our current trends in obesity, the rate of increase in life expectancy may well slow down, although it’s difficult to speculate about that.”
A team of scientists from the U.S and Germany recently showed that excess refined and processed salt may be one of the environmental factors driving the increased incidence of autoimmune diseases.
Moreover, we have a bombardment of artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, emulsifiers, sweeteners that have saturated the food supply for more than four decades, increasing toxicity levels of cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, reproductive, and immune systems.
Perhaps most worrisome is the medicalization of childhood which is leading us to illness if adulthood. If children cough after exercising, they have asthma; if they have trouble reading, they are dyslexic; if they are unhappy, they are depressed; and if they alternate between unhappiness and liveliness, they have bipolar disorder. While these diagnoses may benefit the few with severe symptoms, one has to wonder about the effect on the many whose symptoms are mild, intermittent or transient.
Each successive generation is sicker and more diseased than its predecessor. Autism, learning disabilities, ADHD, asthma, diabetes and many other diseases continue to skyrocket. No government agency has ever done, or will ever do anything about it except continue to compile statistics.
Marco Torres is a research specialist, writer and consumer advocate for healthy lifestyles. He holds degrees in Public Health and Environmental Science and is a professional speaker on topics such as disease prevention, environmental toxins and health policy.