During a breakout session at last winter's White House Fiscal Responsibility Summit, President Obama's chief economic advisor Larry Summers introduced the subject of Social Security reform by suggesting that an increase in the retirement age may be a prudent consideration given that "Americans are living longer."
When it was my turn to speak, I pointed out that "everyone" is not living longer and that, in fact, some researchers are forecasting a drop in America's overall life expectancy due to the childhood obesity epidemic. Prominent lawmakers and experts in the room stared at me with incomprehension and not a little doubt since the connection between childhood obesity, life expectancy and our nation's economy hadn't been a part of Washington's conventional wisdom. As First Lady Michelle Obama launches her historic childhood obesity prevention initiative it is important that we take the time to fully comprehend why her effort is so important for our children and our fiscal future.
Nearly one in three children in the U.S. -- more than 23 million nationwide -- is overweight or obese. For the past four decades, obesity rates have increased more than four times among children 6-11 (from 4.2% to 17%) and more than three times among adolescents 12-19 (from 4.6% to 17.6%). These increases have been attributed to societal trends such as increasing consumption of high calorie fast food, junk food, and sugar-sweetened beverages, declining opportunities to engage in safe physical activity in schools and neighborhoods, and the growing popularity of sedentary entertainment like television and computers.
Research shows that obese children are more likely to develop serious chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, at earlier ages and are at increased risk for becoming obese adults who are vulnerable to severe chronic diseases like hypertension, stroke, certain cancers, and renal disease. Experts estimate that childhood obesity costs up to $14 billion each year and adult obesity up to $147 billion each year in direct medical expenses alone. They estimate an additional $58 billion in annual obesity-related losses due to indirect costs like disability and missed work days.
In addition to its devastating physical and psychological consequences, some experts predict that because of the childhood obesity epidemic we are raising the first generation of children to live sicker and die younger than their parents. Indeed, a widely-read 2005 article in the New England Journal of Medicine forecast a decline in U.S. life expectancies by as much as 5 years over the next few decades as a consequence of childhood obesity. The authors pointed out that this decline would also affect age-based entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. This point is worth exploring in the context of high stakes debates about fiscal responsibility, health care reform, and the future of entitlement programs.
The battle lines have been drawn between fiscal hawks, who want to cut Social Security and Medicare and scale back comprehensive health care reform efforts because they view these investments as too expensive to maintain in the face of skyrocketing national debt, and fiscal doves who believe the best way to address America's economic challenge is by strengthening programs important for the economic security of Americans while making prudent investments that increase worker productivity -- such as education and training -- and minimize avoidable costs -- like preventable health care expenses.
Fiscal hawks, who propose raising the retirement age, would not necessarily be disturbed by news that more adults will die from obesity-related diseases before they become eligible for Social Security's retirement benefits. From their perspective, this saves the government money. Fiscal doves, on the other hand, would view preventable illnesses and death as undercutting workers -- the very engine driving our economy. They would ask: How can we expect our children to sustain a vibrant economy, including its entitlement programs, if they are too sick to maximize their contributions? They would also point out that any savings gained by raising the retirement age will likely be offset by increases in obesity-related costs to Social Security's disability and survivor programs.
A nation oblivious about the condition of its children is a nation in denial about its future. That's why the First Lady's initiative to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic is more than a lightweight effort. The quality of our children's lives and the viability of our fiscal future depend on what we do to secure the health and well-being of our children today. By leading a broad primary prevention effort that tackles the root causes of childhood obesity, the First Lady transcends ideological divisions and gets to the heart of what our country needs to succeed in the new global economy. For this, she deserves the support of every American.
Dr. Maya Rockeymoore is President and CEO of Global Policy Solutions, a social change strategy firm based in Washington D.C., and Director of Leadership for Healthy Communities, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.