Obesity is widely recognized as an epidemic in America. But it’s also thought of as a disease that mainly afflicts people in their middle age.
And most obesity intervention resources are still targeted at children, neglecting younger adults.
In truth, rates of obesity among men and women in their 20s and 30s are double those for young children (34% to 17%), but researchers continue to neglect this critical transition group.
A recent study conducted in Australia found that obesity was reducing the number of years that younger adults could expect to live – as many as 10 in men and 8 in women.
The study used a micro-simulation model of obesity progression among a sample of 12,000 adults ages 20-39 and compared the results to a nationally representative sample to estimate mortality rates for 10-year age cohorts of men and women.
Previous studies have tended to analyze the impact of obesity progression on various life conditions, including diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
But the Australian study zeroes in on reduced life expectancy, dramatizing obesity’s longer-term effects on mortality.
The Australian study also compared mortality rates for those designated as “overweight” versus “obese.” Even younger adults deemed overweight stood to lose at least three years off their life, enough to raise a broad public health concern.
“There is the assumption that overweight and obesity is a problem for people in middle age, and that people in their 20s and 30s are in the prime of their lives. Yet currently, only 43% of Australian men in their 20s and 34% in their 30s are in a healthy weight range, which is worrying,” according to study co-author Professor Alison Hayes.
“Our model predicts adult obesity prevalence will increase to 35% by 2025. We need to act now and have an obesity prevention strategy targeting adults at all ages and in particular young adults,” Dr. Lung, the study co-author adds.
An earlier study conducted by the National Cancer Institute for the National Institute of Health in 2014 found that “extreme” obesity – a more severe condition also known as Class III obesity — shortens a younger adult’s life by as many as 14 years.
Extreme obesity occurs when a person of average height weighs more than 100 pounds over the range for “normal” weight.
The condition was once considered extremely rare but currently, about 6 percent of the US population is considered extremely obese.
As in the Australia study, the NCI researchers also detected reduced life expectancy among those who were overweight or just moderately obese. These individuals were likely to lose 7 years off of their life.
In the United States, most anti-obesity prevention programs still focus on children and youth. And despite more than a decade of efforts, such programs have not measurably reduced childhood obesity.
Some critics have long argued that focusing on younger children is missing promising opportunities for effective intervention with younger adults, when the condition is more advanced (and obvious) but still treatable.
For example, because younger adults are also of working age, there are opportunities for workplace obesity interventions funded by employers that would be unavailable to young children, researchers say.
Research shows that obese workers are more likely to be absent from work, to suffer from alcohol and substance abuse and to incur higher medical bills. Workplace interventions could have a significant impact on labor productivity, a major incentive for employers.
Another advantage is that younger adults are often parents or soon-to-be parents. Preventing obesity in this age group would help reduce the prevalence of obesity in their children.
According to current estimates, the highest proportion of overweight and obese people – 13% of the global total – live in the United States, a country which accounts for only 5% of the world’s population.
Hopefully, the results of the latest Australian study will serve as a fresh catalyst for redirecting U.S. obesity resources to a broader range of age groups.