As the toasts ring out for the New Year, let me add my best wishes to you for a long and happy life. When you consider this simple toast in view of life expectancy today, it is a declaration that should hold a lot of promise. Around a century ago, a person could expect to live about 47 years. Today, that number is closer to 80 years of life.
At the turn of the last century, infectious diseases were the leading cause of death. With the development of vaccines, antibiotics and improvements to sanitation, the threat of infectious diseases are pretty far down the list of threats we face in our lifetime. The leading causes of death today are quite different.
For more than a century, life expectancy has been on the upswing – until recently. For the first time in more than a half-century, life expectancy has fallen in this country during the last two consecutive years. Should that pattern continue, we would soon match a record three-year decline that occurred from 1916-1918, attributed to the worst flu pandemic in modern history.
The main factors for our current circumstances are an upturn in the death rate for the nation’s leading killer, heart disease, along with drug overdose deaths, which now fall under what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls “unintentional injuries.” Unintentional injuries have now displaced chronic lower respiratory diseases as the nation’s third leading cause of death.
Drug overdose deaths increased a staggering 21 percent last year. The age-adjusted death rate from overdoses has more than tripled from 1999 to 2016. Preliminary figures for 2017 show the rise is continuing. Suicides and Alzheimer’s disease are also mounting. Also contributing to the decline were increases in deaths from car crashes and falls.
You would think we would be leading the world in life expectancy, yet, according to the World Bank, the United States currently ranks below dozens of high-income countries in life expectancy.
Though we might be living to an older age than our ancestors, older does not necessarily translate to healthier. In America today, we generally eat unhealthy foods and get less physical activity as part of our everyday lives than ever before. This convergence swings the door wide open to the leading cause of preventable disease in America – obesity. An estimated 40 percent of all Americans are obese. As I recently reported, more than half of American children are projected to be obese by age 35. It does not bode well for the longevity of our future adult population – in our country and throughout the world.
Obesity rates in rich countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada are among the world’s highest. Obesity rates are soaring in Europe, Latin America and in China.
Though the causes of obesity are complex, a growing body of evidence suggests that a culture peddling processed foods combined with a sedentary lifestyle is a central part of the problem. While governments have launched initiatives to improve nutrition education, industry advertising dwarfs these efforts. This dynamic is playing out worldwide.
Seeking to expand their markets, big food companies are now spending significant funds in developing countries. As the New York Times recently reported, a troubling practice that began in the West has moved (along with rising obesity rates) to developing countries: the forming of deep financial partnerships between the world’s largest food companies and nutrition scientists, policymakers and academic societies.
In Malaysia, for example, Nestle, the world’s largest food company, currently funds research projects, pays scholars consulting fees and sponsors most major nutrition conferences. According to a New York Times report, sales of processed foods are soaring. They have increased 105 percent over the past five years, according to the market research company Euromonitor. Nearly half the adult population is now overweight or obese.
Forming such food industry funding arrangements has ignited a growing outcry in the United States and Europe. The argument is that money manipulates science and misleads policymakers and consumers. As the Times points out, in developing countries, where government research funding is scarce and there is less resistance to the practice, companies are doubling down in their efforts.
In the United States, where fast food is so pervasive, the health effects are challenging to study, particularly hard to establish is the specific influence of fast food on obesity.
Developing countries are newer to fast food. Large-scale studies are beginning to demonstrate how the arrival of Western fast food chains has posed serious health risks. Data suggest changing the cultural diet to fast food as well as processed foods has led to soaring health consequences. According to the Times report, not a single nation has been able to reverse the growth of obesity, and only a handful of developing countries have succeeded in enforcing marketing reforms to limit consumer exposure to fast food and processed foods.
Do we really need more proof that we must improve our diet if we are to maintain or improve our health? Do we need medical proof that we need to elevate our heart rate above resting levels every single day; of exercise as a way of training our body for the gift of additional time on this earth?
Writer/philosopher Jonathan Swift was known to toast “May you live all the days of your life.” That is a goal worth the work it may take to achieve it.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.