Younger adult generations less healthy

Metabolic health is running out of steam for the current generation

Metabolic health is running out of steam for the current generation, a recent large international cohort study implies.

Researchers from the Netherlands delved into data from more than 6,000 individuals who took part in the Doetinchem Cohort Study, which got its start in 1987 and checked back in six, 11 and 16 years later. After quantifying the metabolic risks for cardiovascular disease in the study pool, investigators arrived at a startling conclusion: "The more recently born generations are doing worse" and “the prevalence of metabolic risk factors and the lifelong exposure to them have increased and probably will continue to increase."

Stratified by sex and generation (segmented into age groups separated by 10 years — 20, 30, 40 and 50 years), the study team weighed in factors of body weight, blood pressure, total cholesterol levels and levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. Shifts were calculated thereafter at each increment. For example, 40 percent of men in their 30s at the onset of the study were classified as overweight, and 11 years later at first check-in, the second generation of men then in their 30s were 52 percent overweight, indicating an increase of risk in newer generations. 

Key results were listed as follows:

  • Unfavorable (and statistically significant) generation shifts in hypertension in both sexes between every consecutive generation (except for the two most recently born generations of men).
  • Unfavorable generation shifts in diabetes between three of the four generations of men, but not of women.
  • No generation shifts for hypercholesterolaemia, although favorable shifts in HDL cholesterol were only observed between the oldest two generations.

Researchers speculate that the more recent adult generations aren’t doing as well as their predecessors because of a speculative increase in inactivity, although further tests should be conducted for confirmation.

What the findings mean for the public is dire, first author Gerben Hulsegge from the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment explained in a news release.

"The prevalence of obesity in our youngest generation of men and women at the mean age of 40 is similar to that of our oldest generation at the mean age of 55,” he said. “This means that this younger generation is '15 years ahead' of the older generation and will be exposed to their obesity for a longer time. So our study firstly highlights the need for a healthy body weight - by encouraging increased physical activity and balanced diet, particularly among the younger generations.”

Hulsegge continued: "The findings also mean that, because the prevalence of smoking in high-income countries is decreasing, we are likely to see a shift in non-communicable disease from smoking-related diseases such as lung cancer to obesity-related diseases such as diabetes. This decrease in smoking prevalence and improved quality of health care are now important driving forces behind the greater life expectancy of younger generations, and it's likely that in the near future life expectancy will continue to rise - but it's also possible that in the more distant future, as a result of our current trends in obesity, the rate of increase in life expectancy may well slow down, although it's difficult to speculate about that."

The study was published in the latest issue of European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.