Study Finds That Severe Childhood Obesity Can Cut Life Expectancy in Half

Severe childhood obesity can drastically reduce life expectancy, cutting it nearly in half, according to a recent global study conducted by Stradoo GmbH, a life sciences consultancy in Munich. This research provides detailed insights into how the age of onset, severity, and duration of childhood obesity affect long-term health and life expectancy.

Long-term impact of childhood obesity

Presented at the European Congress on Obesity (ECO) in Venice, Italy, the study findings quantified the impact of various aspects of childhood obesity on long-term health for the first time. It was led by Dr. Urs Wiedemann along with colleagues from universities and hospitals across Europe and the United States.

The researchers found that the earlier a child develops obesity, the more severe the long-term effects. For instance, a child living with severe obesity at age four, who does not lose weight, has a life expectancy of just 39 years — about half the average life expectancy.

The findings in detail

“While it’s widely accepted that childhood obesity increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and related conditions such as type 2 diabetes (T2D), and that it can reduce life expectancy, evidence on the size of the impact has been patchy,” said Dr. Wiedemann. She added:

A better understanding of the precise magnitude of the long-term consequences and the factors that drive them could help inform prevention policies and approaches to treatment, as well as improve health and lengthen life.

The researchers developed an early-onset obesity model to estimate the effect of childhood obesity on cardiovascular disease, related conditions like T2D, and life expectancy. This model included four key variables: age of obesity onset, obesity duration, irreversible risk accumulation (a measure of irreversible health effects even after weight loss), and severity of obesity.

Critical factors

The severity of childhood obesity was measured using BMI Z-scores, which indicate how much an individual’s Body Mass Index (BMI) deviates from the norm for their age and sex. For example, a four-year-old boy with a BMI Z-score of 3.5, indicating severe obesity, has a life expectancy of just 39 years if he does not lose weight.

Data for the model were drawn from 50 existing clinical studies on obesity and related comorbidities, involving over 10 million participants worldwide. Approximately 2.7 million of these individuals were between two and 29 years of age.

The risks of severe childhood obesity

The model shows that earlier onset and more severe childhood obesity elevate the likelihood of developing related health issues later in life. For instance, a child with a BMI Z-score of 3.5 at age four has a 27% likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes by age 25 and a 45% chance by age 35. In contrast, a child with a BMI Z-score of 2 at age four has a 6.5% chance of developing type 2 diabetes by age 25 and 22% by age 35.

Higher BMI Z-scores at an early age also lead to a lower life expectancy. For instance, a BMI Z-score of 2 at age four without subsequent weight reduction reduces life expectancy from about 80 years to 65 years. The life expectancy drops further to 50 years for a BMI Z-score of 2.5 and 39 years for a BMI Z-score of 3.5.

Implications for early weight loss

Comparisons with other studies and expert opinions confirmed the model’s accuracy. Moreover, the model demonstrated the positive impact of weight loss on life expectancy and long-term health. For example, a child with severe early onset obesity (BMI Z-score of 4 at age four) has a life expectancy of 37 years and a 55% risk of developing T2D by age 35. If the child loses weight, reducing the BMI Z-score to 2 by age six, life expectancy increases to 64 years, and the risk of T2D drops to 29 percent.

“The early onset obesity model shows that weight reduction has a striking effect on life expectancy and comorbidity risk, especially when weight is lost early in life,” said Dr. Wiedemann.

Addressing childhood obesity

The model has some limitations. It does not account for the causes of obesity, genetic risk factors, ethnic or sex differences, or the interactions between different comorbidities. However, the impact of childhood obesity on life expectancy is profound.

Dr. Wiedemann said:

It is clear that childhood obesity should be considered a life-threatening disease. It is vital that treatment isn’t put off until the development of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, or other ‘warning signs’ but starts early. Early diagnosis should and can improve quality and length of life.

The bottom line

The findings of this study underscore the urgent need for early intervention in cases of childhood obesity. Preventative measures and timely treatments are crucial to improving the long-term health and life expectancy of affected children. As our understanding of the long-term consequences of childhood obesity deepens, so too must our commitment to tackling this critical public health issue from an early age.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Severe childhood obesity can cut life expectancy in half,”, 05/16/24
Source: “Young children with persistent severe obesity could have half average life expectancy, study finds,” The Guardian, 05/14/24
Image by Christopher Williams on Unsplash

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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