American Lifespan Declines as Obesity and Opioid Epidemic Takes Its Toll

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December 21, 2016 | 170,001 views

Story at-a-glance

  • For the first time in two decades, life expectancy has declined in the U.S. — a consequence of obesity and rising rates of eight leading causes of death, including heart disease, diabetes, dementia and opioid addiction
  • The decline in life expectancy is primarily caused by a rise in several categories of preventable deaths, highlighting the failure of the American health care system to properly address the root causes of chronic disease
  • Half of Americans are living with chronic illness, and the cost of health care now accounts for 17 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product

By Dr. Mercola

For the first time in two decades, life expectancy has declined in the U.S.1,2,3 Obesity appears to have a major role along with the rising rates of eight leading causes of death, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and dementia, the latter of which rose by 15.7 percent rise between 2014 and 2015.

The latest data from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) show life expectancy for both men and women in the U.S. dropped between 2014 and 2015, from 76.5 years in 2014 to 76.3 in 2015 for men, and from 81.3 to 81.2 for women.

As noted by BBC News:4 "A decline of 0.1 years in life expectancy means people are dying, on average, a little over a month earlier — or two months earlier for men."

Rises in Preventable Deaths Push Life Expectancy Downward

In all, there were 86,212 more deaths in 2015 compared to 2014, and as of 2015, the U.S. ranks 29th out of 43 countries for life expectancy,5 lagging behind countries like Chile, Costa Rica, Slovenia, Korea and the Czech Republic. In 2014, the U.S. ranked 28th.6

Moreover, according to Dr. Peter Muennig, a professor of health policy and management at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, this decline in life expectancy is a "uniquely American phenomenon." No other developed countries experienced this decline.

Dr. Jiaquan Xu, the report's lead author, noted that the decline in life expectancy is primarily caused by a rise in several categories of preventable deaths,7 again highlighting the failure of the American health care system to properly address the root causes of chronic disease.

More Than Half of All Americans Are Chronically Ill

The cost of health care in the U.S. also increased over the past year, now accounting for an astounding 17 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP).8 But even though the U.S. spends more than $3 trillion on health care each year, it is the worst performing system ranked by multiple aspects of care.9

Recent research also demonstrates half of Americans are living with chronic illness.10 I don't know about you, but I find this statistic absolutely astounding. Half the people in the U.S have some type of chronic illness.

According to study authors Elizabeth Reisinger Walker, Ph.D., an assistant research professor, and Dr. Benjamin Druss, professor at Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University:11

"The health of individuals in the [USA] is increasingly being defined by complexity and multi-morbidity, the co-occurrence of two or more chronic medical conditions."

Opioid Addiction Likely Part of Declining Life Expectancy in US

Opioid addiction appears to be one significant contributor to declining life expectancy in the U.S.12,13 In all, more than 50,000 Americans died from drug overdoses last year, a rise of 11 percent from 2014.

Heroin deaths rose by 23 percent between 2014 and 2015, deaths from synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, rose by 73 percent, while deaths from prescription opioids like Oxycontin and Vicodin rose by 4 percent. Prescription pain killers alone killed 17,536 people last year.

According to Robert Anderson, who oversees death statistics at the CDC: "I don't think we've ever seen anything like this. Certainly not in modern times."

US Anti-Obesity Campaign Declared a Failure

As noted in a 2014 study,14 childhood obesity worsened between 1999 and 2012. This included all classes of obesity, but in particular severe obesity, which poses the greatest risk to a child long-term.

Now, another CDC report concludes that America's battle against the bulge — and especially childhood obesity — has indeed failed.15 According to CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden:16

"The data speak for themselves. If you look for the goal we set for ourselves, and look at what happened, we didn't achieve it."

Rather than lowering obesity rates for toddlers and children, the obesity rate has grown since 2009 (the year Frieden was appointed to the CDC), and now exceeds 17 percent.

This also refutes any claims that First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" campaign, launched in 2010, has made a dent in childhood obesity. It has been a miserable failure because it never integrated foundational nutrition advice due to corporate conflicts.

Her campaign unwisely focused on exercise rather than addressing children's diets. According to recent research, nearly 60 percent, in fact of the food Americans eat is ultra-processed, and less than 1 percent of daily calories comes from vegetables.17,18,19,20,21,22,23,24

Basically, more than half of what the average American eats in any given day are convenience foods that can be bought at your local gas station. Moreover, those ultra-processed foods account for 90 percent of the added sugar consumption in the U.S.

This kind of diet is hardly going to result in healthy children, and until this changes, we're not going to see any dramatic improvement in childhood obesity or childhood disease rates.

Sadly, the failure of Obama's anti-obesity campaign was the result of massive interference and manipulation by the junk food industry, discussed in my article, "How the First Lady's Organic Garden Became a Junk Food Campaign."

United Nations Calls Out Junk Food as Real Culprit in Malnutrition

Obesity is not the only problem associated with a processed junk food diet. On the flip side, you have malnutrition. According to the United Nations (UN) special rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, Ph.D., the impact of processed food on public health is "alarming."  As reported by Civil Eats:25

"Earlier this fall [Elver] told the United Nations General Assembly that, despite all the high-profile work being done around the globe to fight hunger and malnutrition, 'the world is not on track to reach globally agreed nutrition targets.'

Addressing leaders from around the globe, Elver was not afraid to name the culprit.

'Today's food systems are dominated by industrial food production and processing' … coupled with trade policies that result in 'large food corporations … flooding the global market with nutrient poor yet energy-dense foods that are relatively inexpensive.'"

A lot of people don't know this, but the right to adequate food is part of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights26 and the 1976 International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights.27 In countries that have ratified them, these are both legally binding agreements that provide a framework for legal action when these rights are violated. Curiously, the U.S. never ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights.

In participating countries, lawsuits against the government have led to a variety of food entitlement programs for children and other vulnerable groups such as indigenous communities and prisoners. Most importantly, these agreements also address nutrition, not just availability of cheap junk food. In other words, they provide a human rights' framework for access to REAL food, not just denatured "belly-fillers."

Real Food Access and Health Go Hand in Hand

As explained by Civil Eats:

"Why the need for civil society groups to sue governments over the right to food? A significant part of what's gone wrong, Elver explains, is that international trade policies have allowed large food corporations to sell lots of soda, fast food and other high-calorie, nutrient-poor products made with cheap refined grains, corn sweetener and vegetable oil … [M]uch of this production is also controlled globally — in terms of seeds, fertilizers and pesticides — by a very few large companies."

According to Elver, lack of access to nutritious food is an indicator of socioeconomic inequality, and when a bag of chips is cheaper than an apple, this inequality ripples out into our health statistics. As noted by Elver, "We now know that this kind of highly sugar intensive, saturated fat heavy and salty food really makes you sick."

The fact that the U.S. never ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights means that in the U.S., the right to food is a policy issue, not a human right, and Americans cannot take the government to court over lack of food access or lack of nutritional value. According to Elver, access to programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for underprivileged women and children would also be quite different if the U.S. supported the right to food concept.

Elver also stresses that in order to protect and ensure the human right to adequate food, the global community must move away from the industrial model toward more sustainable systems. We simply cannot sustain a global population on commodity crops like corn and soy, and the United States' health statistics is a perfect demonstration of what happens when you try.

More Children Suffering From Type 2 Diabetes

With the rise of obesity has come a rise in the number of American children who suffer from type 2 diabetes. In a nationwide representative study28 between 2001 and 2009, researchers found that while the prevalence of both type 1 and type 2 diabetes increased, the rate of increase of the preventable type 2 diabetes was significantly higher than type 1.

Dr. Robin Goland, co-director of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center at Columbia University Medical Center, calls these "big numbers" and went on to say:29

"In my career, type 1 diabetes was a rare disease in children and type 2 disease didn't exist. And I'm not that old."

Indeed, once thought to be an exclusive adult metabolic disorder, in the past 20 years, type 2 diabetes in children has jumped from less than 5 percent of all newly diagnosed cases to more than 20 percent, and obesity plays an important role in this trend.30

Childhood obesity leads to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes more quickly than in adults, and is associated with both metabolic and cardiovascular complications in children and adolescents.31 Severe insulin resistance is also associated with an increase in morbidity and mortality in young adults and a higher risk of hypertension, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and metabolic syndrome.

This rising tide of children suffering from obesity and type 2 diabetes suggests we can expect ever increasing indirect and direct cost of care and loss of life in coming years.

Junk Food Kills

The root cause of most health problems can be traced back to a poor diet. Most Americans spend the majority of their food dollars on processed foods, most of which contain one or more of the three ingredients that promote the most chronic disease, namely corn, soy and sugar beets, all three of which are also typically genetically engineered (GE) and contaminated with toxic pesticides.

In short, processed foods are killing people prematurely, and if we want to reverse the current disease and mortality trends in the U.S., we have to get serious about cleaning up our food supply and increasing access to real food.

The processed food industry is responsible for creating a "lifestyle disease epidemic" the World Health Organization (WHO) says is "a much greater public health threat than any other epidemic known to man."32 Just as agriculture has become one of the most significant environmental polluters rather than being a leading environmental steward, the food industry has become a leading source of ill health rather than a source of nutrition, health and wellbeing.

In my view, this is thoroughly unacceptable. Marketing junk food to kids and knowingly increasing diabetes, obesity, cancer and heart disease rates is unacceptable. The ever-increasing use of toxic pesticides that contaminate food and destroy the soil is unacceptable. Creating vast amounts of pollution and antibiotic resistance is unacceptable.

Spending tens of millions of dollars to defeat legislation and regulation that would protect environmental and human health is unacceptable, and Big Food does all of these things as part of routine business. The way you fight back is by changing your own purchasing habits. While there are "food deserts" in inner cities, most people are not forced to buy processed foods for lack of options.

The Role of Endocrine Disruptors

Yet another factor driving disease statistics in the U.S. is the excessive exposure to toxic endocrine disrupting chemicals. According to one recent analysis, if exposure to certain household chemicals — including phthalates, DDT, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and perfluoroalkyl — were to be reduced by 25 percent, it would reduce the rate of obesity and type 2 diabetes by an estimated 13 percent.33,34 According to the authors:

"The present study confirms substantial contribution, especially of mixtures of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, to adult type 2 diabetes, and large annual costs of medical care … Our findings also speak the need for a strong regulatory framework that proactively identifies chemical hazards before they are widely used, and the use of safer alternatives …

The European Union is actively considering regulations to limit such exposures, and the USA recently revised the Toxic Substances Control Act, but does not consider endocrine disruption. In the absence of such a framework, newly developed synthetic chemicals may emerge as diabetogenic exposures, replacing banned or substituted hazards as contributors."

Your purchasing decisions can make a big difference in your exposure to these kinds of chemicals, and subsequently your health. In one study,35 young girls who switched to phthalate-free personal care products lowered their phthalate levels by 27 percent.

Taking personal responsibility and seeking out non-toxic products appears to be the only way to really stay safe, as the chemical industry maintains a stronghold over regulatory agencies in both the U.S. and Europe. The French magazine Le Monde recently published a three-part investigative series in which it accuses the European Commission of ignoring the science on endocrine disruptors. The series has been translated and republished by Environmental Health News.36,37,38

To Optimize Your Weight and Health, Eat Real Food, Avoid Toxins and Stay Active

The statistics discussed in this article reveal a grim reality. People around the world, and Americans in particular, are suffering the effects of a failed food system that places immediate profits over long-term health. There's really no way around it; if you're concerned about your weight and health, you need to address the quality of your food and the ratio of carbs, fats and protein you eat.

Don't make the mistake of trying to figure out which processed foods are "good" for you and which ones aren't. A far more effective rule is to simply eat real food, as close to its natural state as possible. If you're still struggling with excess weight after you've cleaned up your diet, you may want to reconsider the timing of your meals.

Intermittent fasting can be very effective for helping your body shift from sugar- to fat-burning mode. If you are overweight, I would strongly encourage you to do a number of water fasts, as that will radically jumpstart your body's ability to burn fat as your primary fuel.

In addition to that, you need to evaluate and address your toxic exposures. Most pesticides can be avoided by eating certified organic foods. If you buy organic produce and grass-fed animal products you'll also cut your exposure to genetically engineered (GE) ingredients, artificial sweeteners and harmful processed fats.

But that's not your only route of exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals. Household cleansers, personal care products and anything containing flame retardants (and that includes everything from furniture and clothing to electronics and baby products) are other common sources.

Last, but certainly not least, increase your physical activity level. This includes standing up more during your work day and walking more. Ideally, aim for 7,000 to 10,000 steps a day. Later you can add on a more regimented workout routine, which will really help maximize all the other healthy lifestyle changes you've implemented. But for general health and longevity, staying active throughout each day and avoiding sitting takes precedence. 

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 New York Times December 8, 2016
  • 2, 7 STAT News December 8, 2016
  • 3 Washington Post December 8, 2016
  • 4 BBC News December 8, 2016
  • 5 OECD Data, Life Expectancy 2015
  • 6 OECD Data, Life Expectancy 2014
  • 8 The Fiscal Times, December 2015
  • 9 CommonwealthFund, 2014, MIRROR, MIRROR ON THE WALL
  • 10, 11 WebMD, November 2016
  • 12 Scientific American December 9, 2016
  • 13 STAT News December 9, 2016
  • 14 JAMA Pediatrics 7 April, 2014 [Epub ahead of print]
  • 15 CBS News December 5, 2016
  • 16 STAT News December 5, 2016
  • 17 BMJ Open 2016;6:e009892
  • 18 The Atlantic March 10, 2016
  • 19 LA Times March 10, 2016
  • 20 Newsweek March 9, 2016
  • 21 Foodnavigator-USA.com March 10, 2016
  • 22 Stat March 9, 2016
  • 23 Medical News Today March 10, 2016
  • 24 Gizmodo March 9, 2016
  • 25 Civil Eats December 6, 2016
  • 26 FAO.org
  • 27 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights
  • 28 Journal of the American Medical Association, 2014;311(17):1778-1786
  • 29 The New York Times, May 2014, Study Reveal Sizable Increase in Diabetes Among Children
  • 30 Miami Herald, November 2016, Type 2 diabetes becoming a childhood epidemic
  • 31 American Diabetes Association Diabetes Care, 2011; 34(Supplement2): S161-S165
  • 32 NY Daily News January 19, 2015
  • 33 Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health October 27, 2016 [Epub ahead of print]
  • 34 HCP Live December 2, 2016
  • 35 Environmental Health Perspectives DOI:10.1289/ehp.1510514
  • 36 Environmental Health News, Endocrine disruptors: A denial of the state of the science, Part 1
  • 37 Environmental Health News, Endocrine disruptors: A denial of the state of the science, Part 2
  • 38 Environmental Health News, Endocrine disruptors: A denial of the state of the science, Part 3