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Americans Living Longer, Lazier Lives

Checkup finds big increase in diabetes, obesity

FRIDAY, Oct. 3, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- The U.S. government has announced the results of the nation's latest checkup, and there's both a silver lining and a cloud.

First, the good news: Americans are living longer than they ever have before and the disparity between blacks and whites is narrowing.

Now, the bad news: We're living longer with chronic diseases like diabetes. Between 1997 and 2002, the number of Americans diagnosed with this disease shot up 27 percent.

These are just some of the statistics from the report Health, United States, 2003, an annual summary of the nation's health from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Few of the findings are particularly surprising. "It's to be expected," says Amy Bernstein, director of the report and acting chief of the analytical studies branch at the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville, Md. "As the population ages, the prevalence of chronic disease is almost inevitably going to go up."

In 2001, average life expectancy hit an all-time high of 77.2 years, adding two years since 1990. Women's life expectancy increased one year to 79.8 years, while men's increased two years to 74.4 years.

While blacks still lagged behind whites in life expectancy, the gully narrowed from 5.7 years in 2000 to 5.5 years in 2001. That's a considerable improvement from 1990, when whites lived an average of seven years longer than blacks.

There's also good news on the preventive-care front. The number of adult women having Pap smears is now 81 percent, up from 78 percent in 1987.

Seventy-eight percent of infants finished their childhood vaccinations, and two-thirds of elderly citizens followed recommendations and got their flu shots.

"We find that, in general, people are taking advantage of more preventive services, and that's a positive trend," Bernstein says.

But other trends are more troubling.

The number of people smoking declined only slightly, to 25 percent of men and 20 percent of women in 2002. Fewer high school students reported smoking cigarettes in the month before they were surveyed: 29 percent in 2001 and 36 percent in 1997. Illicit drug use among 12-to-17-year-olds increased 1 percent to 11 percent.

And the nation is getting fatter. Almost one in three (31 percent) of the population is now obese, double the rate in 1976-1980. Two-thirds of adults aged 20 to 74 were overweight or obese in 1999-2000.

Among children, the prevalence of those overweight more than doubled, from 7 to 15 percent, between 1976-1980 and 1999-2000. Among adolescents, the rate more than tripled, from 5 to 16 percent.

Americans also proved themselves to be sedentary: 38 percent of female high school students and 24 percent of male students did not do the recommended amounts of exercise in 2001. Twelve percent of adult women and 7 percent of men over 18 were inactive during their usual daily activity. The problem got worse as people got older. Nearly one fifth of men 65 and over and more than one-quarter of women 65 and over were inactive.

Not surprisingly, all of this presages the skyrocketing diabetes rate. In 2002, 6.5 percent of American adults were diagnosed with diabetes, versus 5.1 percent in 1997. The health care associated with the disease has also increased.

"One in five hospitalizations now has a diagnosis of diabetes associated with it," Bernstein says. "It's notable, given that hospitalization many times indicates that the proper ambulatory care wasn't provided."

"People don't seem to be getting the message about diet and exercise as much as we had hoped they would," Bernstein adds. "As people get older and have the opportunity to live longer and take advantage of all the great new innovations in medical care, they also have to take into account that they're responsible for some aspect of their own health care."

The verdict? There's been progress, but the nation has miles to go before it rests.

"We're doing better in terms of longevity and we have access to medical care that helps people stay alive, but there's still a lot of work people can do to prevent a lot of these chronic conditions from happening," Bernstein concludes. "The fact that one-quarter of the nation still smokes regularly is an indication of one of the areas where we can try to convince people to improve lifestyle choices."

More information

Health, United States, 2003 is available online at the National Center for Health Statistics. The American Diabetes Association has more on that disease.

SOURCES: Amy Bernstein, Sc.D., acting chief, analytical studies branch, National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hyattsville, Md.; Health, United States, 2003
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