Americans Living Longer, Healthier Lives

But HealthyPeople 2010 Goals Still Not Met Yet in Crucial Areas

By Denise Mann
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Oct. 6, 2011 -- Americans are living a full year longer than they were a decade ago.

"Within one decade, U.S. life expectancy from birth increased to 77.8 from 76.8," says Carter R. Blakey, acting director of disease prevention and health promotion at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington, D.C. "That is tremendous."

The main reasons we are living longer, healthier lives is because fewer Americans are dying from breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, heart disease, and HIV.

These are some of the bigger "wins" that came out of HealthyPeople 2010. Each decade, the HHS sets lofty goals to improve the health of all Americans as part of the HealthyPeople program established in 1980.

HealthyPeople 2010 aimed to increase how long we live, how well we live, and to eliminate health disparities between ethnic and racial groups.

And by and large, "we are doing terrific," she says.

"We do face persistent changes with respect to eliminating health disparities," Blakey says. "We will continue to work on that as we move forward to Healthy People 2020."

Other works in progress address the obesity epidemic and tobacco use, she says.

"We have made some gains in reducing the rate of tobacco use, but we still need more work," Blakey tells WebMD.

"We also need to continue to tackle diabetes and other consequences associated with obesity," she says. "Once we can solve the issue of obesity, we'll see strides in all of the related conditions."

Are We Closer to Ending the Obesity Epidemic?

Curbing obesity rates remains one of our biggest challenges, agrees Scott Kahan, MD. He is an obesity expert at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Although HealthyPeople 2010 did not make tremendous strides toward lowering these rates, there is a silver lining in the new numbers, he says.

"When you look at the raw numbers, we didn't come close to meeting most of the goals for child or adult obesity over the past decade, but beneath the numbers, there is a lot to be hopeful about," Kahan says.

During the previous decade, obesity became part of the national dialogue. "A decade ago, we weren't talking about this," he says.

Not anymore.

Obesity and childhood obesity, in particular, are on everyone's radar screen, including first lady Michelle Obama, Kahan tells WebMD. "This is necessary before real change can occur. We are already seeing obesity rates in a number of populations level off. We can really expect to see progress over the next decade."

He pins a lot of hope on HealthyPeople 2020.

A part of this initiative, Obama's Let's Move campaign, is aimed at reducing childhood obesity by encouraging more exercise and healthy nutritional choices.

Rates of childhood obesity have tripled over the past three decades, and about one in three children in the U.S. is overweight or obese.

Lack of physical activity is a big part of this, but so are our eating habits, Kahan says. "The unhealthy foods are cheaper, more heavily marketed, and more widely available and accessible. And this creates the setting for our default decisions to be pretty unhealthy."

"We need to make it easier to make healthy choices," he says.

Still, "I am cautiously optimistic. I have seen a lot of progress behind the scenes and we need to keep up the hard work."


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SOURCES: HealthPeople2010. Scott Kahan, MD, obesity expert, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.Carter R. Blakey, acting director, disease prevention and health promotion, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. ©2011 WebMD, LLC. All Rights Reserved.