Americans Getting Fatter, Living Longer

Luysii points to CDC data showing that American mortality rates are dropping year after year while we simultantaneously get fatter and fatter. S/he points to several possibilities:

Fat American graphic

#1: More people are exercising than they used to. How many joggers and walkers did you see on the streets 20, 30 years ago?

#2: Fewer people are smoking. Forget lung cancer (if you can). The big risk for smokers is premature vascular disease. Normally we all have carbon monoxide in our blood (it comes from the breakdown of hemoglobin). [ Brit. Med. J. vol. 296 pp. 78 – 79 ’88 ] Natural carbon monoxide production would lead to a carboxyhemoglobin level of .4 – .7%, but normal levels in nonsmokers in urban areas are 1 – 2%. Cigarette smoke contains 4% carbon monoxide, so smokers have levels of 5 – 6%. This can’t be good for their blood vessels.

#3: Doctors know more than they did. My brother is a very competent internist. He took over the practice of a similarly competent internist after his very untimely many death years ago. Naturally he got all the medical records on the patients. He found letters (now over 25 years old) from the late MD to his patients informing them of their lab results, and assuring them that their cholesterol was just fine at 250 mg%.

#4: The drugs are better. In addition they may be working in ways that we have yet to fathom. Consider the statins — their effect on vascular disease is far greater than their effect on blood lipids (cholesterol, triglyerides) — particularly when compared to other agents that lower blood lipids to the same extent.

Megan McArdle guesses it’s not exercise, since fat people probably aren’t the ones jogging. Additionally, a commenter reasonably points out that we may be “exercising” more because our lifestyles, especially our jobs, are less sedentary than they were.

Many of the recent advances in medicine have specifically aimed at ameliorating the effects of obesity and high cholestorol.  We’ve also gotten radically better at neo-natal care and otherwise radically improving survivability in those first days and weeks of a baby’s life.

Beyond that, it’s also quite possible that advances in medicine are a small part of the story.

  • Violent crime is down.
  • So are deaths in auto accidents.
  • We’re less likely to get killed on the job – directly offsetting the fact that sitting behind a computer all day makes us more likely to get fat.
  • We’re not losing tens of thousands of people to war every few years.

I’m sure I’m missing half a dozen other contributing factors. What are they?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Alex Knapp says:

    Smoking (a) curbs appetite and (b) shortens life span. I’d say that the fact that fewer Americans smoke is likely a significant factor for this finding.

  2. Maggie Mama says:

    More often than not, our military men and women and the great job they do is “up front” in my mind.

    If we look at “battlefield” casualties, the numbers have been greatly reduced thanks to modern technology on all levels. That is why Walter Reed is full, but thank heavens, our cemeteries are not packed with our “war” dead.

  3. Rachel says:

    Advances in emergency medicine. Surviving one heart attack back then was harder, where as now people will survive multiple.

  4. Maggie Mama says:

    What you didn’t mention was pre-natal care and the use of vaccines for children. More attention is also paid to dangerous cribs, high chairs, and toys. Lead paint has been removed from their envrionment. Playgrounds no longer have monkey bars or other “dangerous” equipment. Helmets are required for many activities: Biking, skiing, roller blading, and horseback riding.

    Oh, and let’s not forget that dodge ball has been removed from the school ciriculum!

  5. Recent research indicates that being mildly overweight may actually be beneficial to overall health. So it could be that some people are living longer BECASUE they’re fatter.

  6. I second Maggie. What military doctors are managing to do nowadays is unbefreakinglievable. There ought to some sort of medal.

    I imagine a host of influences — better building inspection and construction standards, better identification of deadly consumer products, better consumer awareness of things like drug side effects and interactions, major improvements in auto safety, childhood immunizations, anti-smoking campaigns, quicker reaction to epidemics — add up as well.

    Interesting that those are all your government at work, huh?

    Meanwhile, for its part, private industry has come up:


  7. Drew says:

    The single most important issue for non-accident mortality is of course genes. I doubt that has changed much. So…….

    After that, it is inconceivable to me that the two clearly most important variables: smoking and trans fats – aren’t the biggest issues here.

    Which is why, Alex, I hope you keep those cigars to a minimum.

    There is a third, but I suspect second order issue: emergency care. People know to take an aspirin if they think they are having a heart attack or stroke, and the quick acting clot busting drugs now available are amazing.

    And then of course there are the wonderful developments in anti-cancer drugs, blood pressure drugs, stents, lipid lowering drugs.

    Which is of course why we should all vilify the evil drug companies like the left does………

    You didn’t think I could leave a post without taking a shot, did you???

  8. TangoMan says:

    Everyone here is making this more complicated than it needs be. All we need to do is apply the model that the left favors, here is Health “guru” Ezra Klein:

    In other words, the difference in life expectancies is about the economics of how we finance health care.

    Let me spell it out for everyone – This increase in lifespans is a direct result of how we finance health care. Some might see this conclusion as leftists being hung by their own petard. I kind of look at it as those who live by the sword dying by the sword.

    What I find troubling is the inclination to accept the leftist formulation of financing methods being responsible for non-desirous outcomes but having to look for non-financing factors to explain desirous factors. This double standard doesn’t work for me. If leftists want to see the world as a cartoon, then let’s play that game and declare the need for health care reform to be over because the way we finance health care is producing desirous results even in situations where countervailing forces (obesity) are at work.

  9. triumph says:

    The reason that our life expectancies are so good is because we have a health care system based on freedom–not socialism.

    One of Obama’s grand plans is to reverse that which is why he is proposing a Death Panel and by taking money directly out of patients bank accounts.

    This is Hitler 101.

    His push for death panels has come at the same time as the stimulus package which put loads of money towards rail cars.

    I think many of us know how rail cars were used by the Nazis.

    if people start complaining when our mortality age declines, expect Obama to farm out health care to the United Nations, to really reach the culmination of his final solution.

  10. bystander says:

    There is less choking on mainline media bulls**t because we now have Fox News Network.

    Oh yeah!

  11. vech says:

    Vaccines have done wonders in preventing catastrophic epidemics.

  12. G.A.Phillips says:

    I think it’s the Cheeto’s.

  13. Eneils Bailey says:

    This past June I was perusing the supplement to our local weekly wiper(newspaper)that had photographs and a brief bio on all the local high school graduates. I was taken with the number of what appeared to be overweight to obese high school kids. I pulled out my yearbook, from the same high school but close to four decades earlier and was reminded that we only had a couple of overweight kids. I passed it off as the new life style, more fast food availability, no exercise or strenuous activity, and of course cable TV and Internet activities up the yang.

    Then I happened to remember my son’s graduating class class(2001) from a Catholic High School in Atlanta. Of the 212 graduates in his class, there was only a small handful of overweight graduates.(none were close to being obese) The parents were on campus, involved in the school every time the doors opened. As a whole, the parents instilled in these kids a sense of responsibility to themselves, their school, and their family. And this was evident in the way they presented themselves and pursued their education.

    What does this men? Beats the hell out of me.
    Is it the school’s or some other entity’s responsibility to keep the fat off the juveniles? Absolutely not, it is the parents responsibility. But then when parents have no self discipline or self respect, that is reflected in the kids.

  14. Eneils Bailey says:


  15. anjin-san says:

    I know I was very impressed with the care that my mother got after her recent cancer diagnosis. They caught it early (via screening) and it looks like she will be fine.

    My mother is pretty well off. It is worth noting that without good insurance, about half of her cash resources would have just vanished in 90 days. Pretty scary considering that she is 75 & most people in my family live into their 90s. How do folks without insurance make it? I have no idea.