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Experts warn: Americans facing growing health crisis

Published: Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Updated: Monday, February 28, 2011 18:02

11/30/05 - Americans could see a decline in life expectancy if they don't start making healthy decisions, two speakers said at yesterday's University of Rhode Island Honors Colloquium. "For the first time in history this generation of children may not live as long as their parents because of lifestyle choices," Executive Director of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports Melissa Johnson said.

Dr. Robert Butler, the first director of the National Institute on Aging at the National Institutes of Health and a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, joined Johnson in stressing the importance of making good health choices.

"We physicians have to write a greater, broader, more expansive medical prescription that does not just include pills," Butler said.

Butler said Americans have come to use medicine without thinking about possible long-term consequences and no longer engage in simple health practices such as exercising.

Johnson displayed a map of America from 1985 that showed most states had no statistics on obesity. The map rapidly changed colors as the years progressed, showing more and more Americans as obese. By 2004, red - representing states where more than 25 percent of the population is obese - covered almost the entire country.

The Ocean State faired slightly better than the national average, with statistics showing between 20 and 24 percent of Rhode Islanders as overweight.

Overall, Johnson said, two-thirds of Americans are overweight and less than 35 percent exercise on a regular basis.

"God forbid we actually walk to the grocery store or not park in the first spot closet to the door," Johnson said.

Obesity is particularly prevalent in children who are playing video games, using computers or participating in other activities that involve little or no physical activity. Butler noted that many children today suffer from diseases traditionally found in elderly people.

"As a physician I'm amazed when I see a 10-year-old with Type II diabetes," Butler said.

To encourage physical activity among America's youth, the President's Council runs the President's Physical Fitness Tests that rewards grade-school students for physical accomplishments. Johnson said 4.2 million students participate in the program at 32,000 schools across the country, and the Council is partnering with General Mills to bring the program to schools in low-income areas.

Johnson said the Council is also working with other federal agencies and Congress to bring physical education to more schools and mandate it. Specifically, Johnson said she supports a bill backed by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

"He will be backing a bill to require physical education as part of the core curriculum in No Child Left Behind," Johnson said, referring to the law signed by President Bush in 2002 that made sweeping changes to the nation's education system.

Butler said changes at the government level are important but more changes are needed.

"I don't think we can depend on just the taxpayers," he said. "A lot of this is going to depend on ourselves."

Butler said not just children but also adults need to exercise more, reduce stress and eat healthier if Americans expect to see the same ages people live to today.

"We've gained an added 30 years of life that's been the most obtained in the last 5,000 years of human life," Butler said. "[If steps are not taken] it is possible we would lose much of that life expectancy that we gained, and that would be a tragedy."

Both speakers noted the economic impact of an unfit population. Johnson said obesity alone costs the nation an estimated $117 billion in health care costs and lost productivity. Butler said an expanded life expectancy could mean more people working and paying into Social Security and help alleviate the issues the program is facing.

Butler and Johnson recommended simple steps for Americans to become more active. They suggested taking the stairs instead of the elevator, exercising with a buddy and taking a break from work to go for a walk.

Butler said sports can provide an opportunity for physical activity, but they can bring consequences as well.

"We don't have the sportsmanship I wish we had," he said. "We have parents' rage, player anger and steroids."

He also said studies have shown NFL players who suffer at least three concussions during their careers are five times more likely to develop memory problems later on in life than those who have not. Butler said such health consequences are not limited to professional sports, adding that youth sports are becoming more physical.

"One should be very mindful, and coaches should be very careful, they don't send someone back onto the field with a head injury," he said.

Butler also said he is concerned about the effects that drugs such as Ritalin are having on limiting children's physical activity and the long-term affects such drugs have on the brain.

But in a response to a question from URI President Robert L. Carothers, Butler said he remained hopeful that today's youth would shape up and exercise.

"I'm very optimistic. I think we can change," Butler said. "I agree we are going to have a real struggle with these computers and video games."

Johnson added, "We're making changes, but we might not see them tomorrow.

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