Kiwi kids destined for shorter lives than parents

Last updated 05:00 04/07/2013

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Kiwi children need to start learning healthier lifestyles if they are not to be the first generation in a century to have a worse life expectancy than their parents.

A British public health expert is warning that modern lifestyles could prompt a reversal of medical improvements that have steadily increased life expectancy during the past 100 years.

" . . . there's evidence now that things are stalling," The Times in London reported Professor John Ashton saying.

"The golden generation, now in their 90s, have really benefited from traditional lifestyles - walking to school and work . . . not having junk food - but that has been coupled with the benefits of modern medicine.

"What we've now got is generations coming through where there has been a deterioration of lifestyles."

Otago University Associate Professor Esko Wiltshire, a paediatric endocrinologist, said yesterday that Kiwi families were among those facing a decline in life expectancy and healthiness.

The problem was prevalent in First World countries, but New Zealand already had higher rates of obesity, which was a further concern, he said.

However, there was still time to stop the trend. "I don't think it's inevitable, but it is possible."

Health improvements of the past century were related mainly to sanitation and medical advances, he said. But improvements in the availability of food, and of high-energy food, had not matched lifestyle changes, which had become more sedentary.

Food used to be a scarce resource, and people would easily expend energy through active lifestyles, but now food was easy to come by and higher in energy, but people's metabolisms had not yet adjusted, he said.

That was playing itself out in higher rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease, Dr Wiltshire said.

"There are significant long-term risks at the population level from the change in the lifestyle that we are living."

To try to stop it having a lasting impact on life expectancy, healthier lifestyles had to be introduced at a young age. That included healthy eating habits and activity levels, he said.

"It's much easier to get those in place from the beginning than to try and change them later."

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