For those who assume that the next generation of Americans will live longer than their parents, a new “three-dimensional” method of forecasting vital health statistics shows how this may not prove to be the case.

Most Americans enjoy better health today than in the past, with significant declines in death rates from the top three causes of death:  heart disease, cancer, and stroke. However, as Eric Reither of the University of Utah and coauthors point out in a Health Affairs Web First article published today, death rates provide “only a limited, ‘two-dimensional’ vision of the future by failing to take into account the potentially different risk factors accumulated by people who are still alive.”

The authors studied patterns in heart disease mortality published by the National Center for Health Statistics to explore how traditional projection methods fail to account for the impact of the US obesity epidemic on the longevity of younger Americans.  Whereas traditional, two-dimensional methods predicted continued declines in mortality from coronary heart disease for men under the age of 50, the authors found that mortality gains actually slowed among men ages 45-49 and reversed among men ages 25-29 after 2000.  Importantly, these adverse health consequences of obesity were accurately predicted by a new, ‘three-dimensional’ model that accounts for poorer health among recent generations of Americans.

“Because this three-dimensional perspective anticipates substantial increases in morbidity and related health care expenditures, it suggests that the appropriate public policy response is to redouble efforts to develop and implement effective obesity prevention programs and other targeted interventions,” say the authors.  “We suggest that traditionally reported national vital statistics be supplemented with three-dimensional models that, by focusing on living rather than extinguishing cohorts, more reliably predict the future of health and longevity.”