Obesity’s Economic Burden

August 1, 2015 - The economic burden of obesity in the United States is under-recognized. Even though our nation is more aware than ever of the growing size of our people—which adds hugely to the burden of disease—we seem paralyzed to stop this trend. Perhaps understanding the economic impact will focus our attention.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta (CDC) estimates that 28.6% of U. S. adults are overweight, 35.7% are obese, and 5.7% are morbidly obese. That leaves only a minority of folks (30%) who have normal weights! Sadly, during the past two decades we have been growing, with no state in the union having less than 20% of its citizens overweight.

Two key metrics can be used to assess the degree of obesity—body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference. BMI is the ratio of a person’s weight with respect to their height. Tables abound on the internet (http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/BMI/bmicalc.htm). A number over 30 is overweight, above 35 is obese and greater than 40 is morbidly obese. Waist circumference greater than 35 inches for women and 40 for men is considered obese.

The obesity crisis and its related diseases create a significant economic burden for our nation’s healthcare system and economy. This is according to a recent monograph entitled “Obesity: The Economic Burden, the Disease, and the Solution.” In the aggregate, the total cost for obese individuals is $198 billion and for overweight individuals it is $72 billion annually!

In addition, there are other overweight or obesity-related costs of $291 billion: the increased need for medical care ($127 billion); loss of worker productivity due to higher rates of morbidity ($49 billion); disability of active employees ($43 billion); and total disability ($72 billion).

The increase in annual medical costs incurred by obese individuals, compared to those of normal weight, is estimated as $2,741 per person, which multiples out to an astounding 20.6% of the national health expenditure. Just by losing weight we could control healthcare costs and balance the Federal budget. What a great solution! And there would be the additional benefits of lowering the sale of sugar-loaded sodas, chips, and other fattening foods. Sadly—and almost unbelievably—our nation spends more on potato chips than we do on cancer research!

Employers and insurance companies that pay for healthcare are also struggling with the burden of obesity. Medical expenditures and loss of productivity cost them $73.1 billion per year. Of this total cost, medical accounts for $30.3 billion, presentism (defined as reduced performance while at work due to health problems) accounts for $30 billion, and absenteeism accounts for $12.8 billion.

Diseases related to obesity include: asthma, joint pain, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, sleep apnea and many other conditions which have compounding effects on health, and with associated additional costs.

We have much work to do as a society, and opportunities can start here in Southwest Florida. Locally, we are mobilizing forces with our Blue Zones Project to provide everyone, from birth to old age, with a focus on making the healthier choice the easier choice. It is easier to change your environment than to change your mind. Thus, avoiding temptations has been proven to be a successful strategy.

This is a choice we can all make as individuals. The Blue Zones Project is a “we” project with many options and many choices. Statistically, 20% of citizens will embrace the principles early on and 60% will follow with good results. Sadly, 20% will choose to stay behind, which is certainly their option. We will focus on the 80% who will continue on a virtuous path as we aspire to become the healthiest community in the nation.

Past Health Advice Articles

Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.