WASHINGTON – A new forecast on America’s obesity crisis has health experts fearing a dramatic jump in health care costs if nothing is done to bring the epidemic under control.
“The obesity problem is likely to get much worse without a major public health intervention,” says health economist Eric Finkelstein.
The new projection, released here Monday, warns that 42% of Americans may end up obese by 2030, and 11% could be severely obese, adding billions of dollars to health care costs.
“If nothing is done (about obesity), it’s going to hinder efforts for health care cost containment,” says Justin Trogdon, a research economist with RTI International, a non-profit research organization in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.
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As of 2010, about 36% of adults were obese, which is roughly 30 pounds over a healthy weight, and 6% were severely obese, which is 100 or more pounds over a healthy weight.
“The obesity problem is likely to get much worse without a major public health intervention,” says Eric Finkelstein, a health economist with Duke University Global Health Institute and lead researcher on the new study.
The analysis was presented at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Weight of the Nation” meeting. The study is being published online in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
The increase in the obesity rate would mean 32 million more obese people within two decades, Finkelstein says. That’s on top of the almost 78 million people who were obese in 2010.
Extra weight takes a huge toll on health, increasing the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, many types of cancer, sleep apnea and other debilitating and chronic illnesses.
“Obesity is one of the biggest contributors for why healthcare spending has been going up over the past 20 years,” says Kenneth Thorpe, a professor of health policy at Emory University in Atlanta.
The obesity rate was relatively stable in the USA between 1960 and 1980, when about 15% of people fell into the category. It increased dramatically in the ’80s and ’90s and was up to 32% in 2000 and 36% in 2010, according to CDC data. Obesity inched up slightly over the past decade, which has caused speculation that the obesity rate might be leveling off.
Finkelstein, Trogdon and colleagues predicted future obesity rates with a statistical analysis using different CDC data, including body mass index, of several hundred thousand people. Body mass is a number that takes into account height and weight. Their estimates suggest obesity is likely to continue to increase, although not as fast as it has in the past.
Finkelstein says the estimates assume that things have gotten about as bad as they can get in the USA, in terms of an environment that promotes obesity. The country “is already saturated” with fast-food restaurants, cheap junk food and electronic technologies that render people sedentary at home and work, he says. “We don’t expect the environment to get much worse than it is now, or at least we hope it doesn’t.”
In an earlier study, Finkelstein and experts from the CDC estimated that medical-related costs of obesity may be as high as $147 billion a year, or roughly 9% of medical expenditures. An obese person costs an average of $1,400 more in medical expenses a year than someone who is at a healthy weight, they found. Other researchers have estimated the costs may be even higher.