Being overweight or obese literally sucks the years off of a child’s life. A study from Sweden found that men who are obese at age 20 have already taken 8 years off their life expectancy. (The Week, 7-30-2010) Hammond & Levine (2010 conducted an analysis that determined a white male aged 20 years with a BMI over 45 could be expected to have 13 years of life lost, the equivalent of a 22% reduction in remaining life years. Another study by Columbia University and the City College of New York finds that obesity is as unhealthy as smoking in terms of Quality-Adjusted Life Years lost. (Healy, 1-5-2010) While no parent would give their child cigarettes to smoke, many will nonetheless deliver their children the exact same health risk by allowing an inactive or unhealthy lifestyle.
There are several ways in which excess weight and inactivity will suck years (or decades) off a child’s life:
1. Obesity related illness: Being overweight and/or obese contributes to numerous health problems which shorten a person’s average lifespan.
2. Excess weight puts more wear and tear on just about every system in the body – everything from liver and gastrointestinal systems to the lungs and even the brain. Over time, this excess wear and tear means all the vital systems are likely to expire sooner.
3. Telomeres: Telomeres are like the caps on a shoelace, only they attach on the ends of your DNA strands to keep your genetic code tightly woven. Telomeres are also a general measure of health and vitality – the longer the telomeres, the healthier your cells. Telomere length is determined at birth by genetics, but lifestyle habits play a major role in how quickly telomeres erode. Numerous things can influence telomere length, but among the strongest factors (right up there with stress) are diet and exercise: physical activity keeps telomeres in good shape, whereas excess weight and poor eating shorten them significantly. As telomeres are worn down, cells experience DNA damage and stop functioning properly, contributing to an earlier death.
The more overweight a person is, the more profound this effect is in terms of lost life.
Imagine, for a moment, that each child was born with a death date that we all knew ahead of time. Janie was born with genetics that stamped her to live to 85 if she stayed healthy, little Jonny to 73. So let’s also pretend for a moment, that there was some new kind of molester who could quite literally suck the life right out of your child; some monster that feeds off the energy of children. How furious would you be if you sent your child to school, and when he came back home, someone had sucked 27 years of Jonny’s life away. His death date was now stamped at 46. Close to 3 decades of his life, simply gone. Would we not consider that a horrible act of child abuse? Would we not do everything we could to go after these life drainers to protect our children’s future? This is essentially what is going on with our current obesity epidemic. Children are developing weight Problems that will greatly lower their standard of living and Pose life-threatening risks three, four, five decades before it should. Many overweight teens have developed severe liver damage caused by too much body fat, and may need risky liver transplants. (WSJ, 9-8-08) The American Liver Foundation estimates that 2-5% of American children over age 5 are developing this condition due to obesity. These are very real, very life threatening risks. Excessive weight is a significant factor in four of the six leading causes of death; heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes. (Andrews, 2009) All told, obesity is linked to around 300,000 deaths in the U.S. each year. (National Geographic Channel, 8-14-09)
Obesity & cancer
Another thing people don’t realize is that excess fat is strongly tied to cancer. Excess fat cells contribute to the growth of malignancies and also mess with the endocrine system in the body, making cancer more likely. It’s established that around 25% of several types of malignancies, including cancer of the colon, kidney, and esophagus – can be directly tied to increasing rates of obesity and physical inactivity. (Gorman, 2012) One study found that around 100,500 new cases of cancer are caused by obesity every year. (Hellmich, 11-5-2009) The American Cancer Society puts these numbers even higher, saying that at least a third of the more than 572,000 cancer deaths in the U.S. each year can be attributed to diet and physical activity habits. (Lloyd, 3-29-2012) No matter which way you look at it, overweight children will have a greater risk of developing cancer in their lifetime.
Every bit as important as the increased risk caused by obesity are the gains a child receives from a healthy lifestyle. A study by Dean Ornish, president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, found that a healthy lifestyle changes the gene expression of many cancer relevant genes, and that “in every case where we could identify the gene change, it went in a healthy direction.” (Bauldauf, 2010)