Posted on 13 October 2016
Are you one of those millions of people around the globe who spends hours every week thinking about how to trim a few kilos from your waistline? In most cases you’d be better off enjoying good food, accepting your body as it is and spending your time trying to advance scientific research on age-related diseases which are far more likely to kill you.
The World Health Organisation, WHO, has just announced their support of a soda tax; the idea being to make sugary drinks more expensive in order to reduce levels of obesity around the globe. This has been introduced in countries such as Mexico, Hungary, South Africa and France, and is strongly under consideration to be implemented in many other countries.
In several European countries laws have also been passed banning fast food advertising targeting children as well as candy machines in schools. Vast amount of taxpayers’ money is further spent in more or less fruitless campaigns directed at youths about eating healthy and exercising.
This is a part of an ambitious goal to slightly cut the number of heart attacks expected to occur in the 2070s when today’s children reach their 60s. This investment also presumes that by half a century from now there will be no future major medical breakthroughs preventing atherosclerotic heart disease, in addition to other forms of age-related illness.
I argue that taxes on junk food, national health campaigns, and a fat shaming culture do not lead us anywhere.There is no fountain of youth or solution to the public health crisis to be gained from fighting the obesity epidemic. On the contrary this preoccupation hurts society in the long term by distracting public opinion and researchers away from the real issue which is biological aging.
But ‘obesity is very dangerous’ health experts argue, ‘it is a major cause of death and wastes billions in health care expenditure. Surely one can then rationalize also spending billions trying to combat obesity in order to achieve a net positive gain in economy and global health outcomes?’
Well, I argue that these figures need to be put into context.
In Western European countries such as Sweden 91% of all people born around 1950 currently reach the retirement age of 65. That figure includes drug addicts, victims of fatal accidents, suicides, smokers, alcoholics and the morbidly obese. Roughly 1% in contrast reach their 100th birthday, hence one can easily see that essentially 90% of all people die of aging between the ages of 65 and 100.
Nearly all obese people die of age-related causes that are sped up by unhealthy lifestyle choices, increasing rates of type 2 diabetes, atherosclerotic heart disease and certain forms of cancer. These deaths occur predominantly in the young-elderly age category of 60-75 years of age. There are many young obese people in Sweden, but only about a dozen heart attacks occur every year in people aged under 40. (It is unknown if these rare cases are related to lifestyle). Prior to the early 40s age group, suicide and accidents dominate the causes of death.
In conclusion if no-one was biologically over 40 years old we could expect that very few would die from obesity, and the main issues would be physical fitness and a mismatch with the skinny beauty ideal perpetuated by Western media. It therefore makes little sense to expend every effort possible to prevent young people from putting on weight, but it makes a lot of sense to spend energy trying improve the lives of the elderly, as they are in the real risk zone as a result of aging pathologies. On the contrary there is no scientific evidence backing up the notion driven by popular media that extreme longevity is possible to achieve through an unusually healthy lifestyle. The forms of aging damage that tend to cause mortality in the 85+ group have no quick, lifestyle fix.
All statistics show that when you eliminate premature causes of death, most people are shifted towards the most common age of death at around 87 years old (depending on the country). The unhealthy, very obese person might end up living to 72, while the fit athlete could reach 89 for example. The difference in female life expectancy between the most long-lived japanese island Okinawa vs Sweden is a matter of 84 vs 87 years old.
This is why we should intervene and focus our resources on tackling the toxic consequences of aging causing frailty and enormous suffering in the elderly. The intrinsic aging process itself kills a massive 110,000 people every day, causing enormous human suffering and loss of economic productivity. Taxing sugary foods and shaming young people into having a poor body image is not the way we should go when it comes to dealing with the global challenge of runaway health expenditure and age-related disease.
Guest contributor Victor Björk