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Rise in Obesity Is Slowing Gains in Life Expectancy and Widening Racial Health Disparities New Research Shows

WASHINGTON—Rising obesity rates in the United States are slowing life expectancy gains, accelerating aging and widening racial health disparities, according to “Rising Obesity in an Aging America,” a new report published by PRB. Older Americans with obesity face a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, spend more of their later years with a disability, are less likely to get the help they need at home and more likely to move into nursing facilities than their peers without obesity.

The report highlights research on the health impact and social consequences of obesity in the United States conducted by researchers supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) at the National Institutes of Health.

“Obesity is a leading cause of preventable disease and early death among U.S. older adults,” said Mark Mather, acting Vice President for PRB’s U.S. Programs. “Obesity rates among older Americans nearly doubled between about 1988 and 2018, increasing from 22% to 40%. Obesity rates among working-age adults are even higher, which means we could see obesity levels among older Americans rise further in the future.”

Researchers say interventions will need to address individual behaviors as well as contextual factors that contribute to longstanding socioeconomic and health disparities. Among the key trends:

Slowing life expectancy: The rise in obesity appears to be slowing improvements in U.S mortality rates and life expectancy, leaving Americans with shorter lives on average than residents of many other affluent countries that have lower obesity levels.

More rapid aging: Obesity may be slowing life expectancy gains by accelerating biological aging, particularly among U.S. women. Biological aging occurs more than two years faster among nonsmoking individuals with obesity, contributing to earlier onset of chronic disease, disability and death.

Widening racial health disparities: Among Black and Hispanic adults, obesity rates increased more sharply and key health indicators declined more steeply than among non-Hispanic white adults between 1992 and 2016.

Growing evidence suggests obesity in young adulthood and middle age lays the foundation for chronic conditions such as heart disease and stroke that create functional limitations and cut life short. New research, however, shows that effective prescription medications for reducing high blood pressure and cholesterol levels have cut cardiovascular disease risks despite rising obesity. In addition, medical treatment for both cardiovascular diseases and diabetes may be slightly lengthening lives and reducing disability among all older Americans, including those with obesity.

New evidence underscores the importance of addressing obesity in young adulthood: People considered obese at age 25 can cut their risk of premature death in half if they lose enough weight to be considered overweight—rather than obese—by their mid- to late 40s, a recent study shows.

The studies support investment in a variety of approaches to prevent and address obesity, including:

  • Reduce the availability and consumption of ultra-processed foods and sugary beverages, especially in schools.
  • Expand proven school, community and workplace programs for improving diet and physical activity, particularly those that target youth and young adults.
  • Ensure that all adults, especially those with obesity, are screened and treated for risk factors for cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.
  • Address the wide range of racial and ethnic disparities related to stress and differences in access to health care, healthy food and opportunities for physical activity.

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