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Obesity Threatens a Generation

'Catastrophe' of Shorter Spans, Higher Health Costs

Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
"We aren't going to solve this problem by taking a retro view. We've got to find 21st century solutions." (Video By Jennifer Crandall-- The Washington Post)
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An organ-by-organ summary shows how obesity kills slowly, causing damage from head to toe with painful, lasting affects. More »
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Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 17, 2008; 12:05 PM

An epidemic of obesity is compromising the lives of millions of American children, with burgeoning problems that reveal how much more vulnerable young bodies are to the toxic effects of fat.

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In ways only beginning to be understood, being overweight at a young age appears to be far more destructive to well-being than adding excess pounds later in life. Virtually every major organ is at risk. The greater damage is probably irreversible.

Doctors are seeing confirmation of this daily: boys and girls in elementary school suffering from high blood pressure, high cholesterol and painful joint conditions; a soaring incidence of type 2 diabetes, once a rarity in pediatricians' offices; even a spike in child gallstones, also once a singularly adult affliction. Minority youth are most severely affected, because so many are pushing the scales into the most dangerous territory.

With one in three children in this country overweight or worse, the future health and productivity of an entire generation -- and a nation -- could be in jeopardy.

"There's a huge burden of disease that we can anticipate from the growing obesity in kids," said William H. Dietz, director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "This is a wave that is just moving through the population."

The trouble is a quarter-century of unprecedented growth in girth. Although the rest of the nation is much heavier, too, among those ages 6 to 19 the rate of obesity has not just doubled, as with their parents and grandparents, but has more than tripled.

Because studies indicate that many will never overcome their overweight -- up to 80 percent of obese teens become obese adults -- experts fear an exponential increase in heart disease, strokes, cancer and other health problems as the children move into their 20s and beyond. The evidence suggests that these conditions could occur decades sooner and could greatly diminish the quality of their lives. Many could find themselves disabled in what otherwise would be their most productive years.

The cumulative effect could be the country's first generation destined to have a shorter life span than its predecessor. A 2005 analysis by a team of scientists forecast a two- to five-year drop in life expectancy unless aggressive action manages to reverse obesity rates. Since then, children have only gotten fatter.

"Five years might be an underestimate," lead author S. Jay Olshansky of the University of Illinois at Chicago acknowledged recently.

This is the first day in a week-long Washington Post series on childhood obesity, exploring its causes, its impact and possible remedies.

The epidemic is expected to add billions of dollars to the U.S. health-care bill. Treating a child with obesity is three times more costly than treating the average child, according to a study by Thomson Reuters. The research company pegged the country's overall expense of care for overweight youth at $14 billion annually. A substantial portion is for hospital services, since those patients go more frequently to the emergency room and are two to three times more likely to be admitted.

Given the ominous trend lines, the study concluded, "demand for ER visits, inpatient hospitalizations and outpatient visits is expected to rise dramatically."


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