Obesity Costs a U.S. Adult almost $1,900 per Year

WEDNESDAY, March 24, 2021 (HealthDay News) – For people who are obese, even a small gain in weight can lead to higher medical costs, according to a new study.

Obesity is well known to contribute to health problems like arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers – and health care costs bear witness to that.

But the new study has delved a little deeper into the link between weight and medical costs. Overall, health care costs for obese adults were almost $ 1,900 higher each year, compared to their normal weight peers. And once adults were in the “obese” category, even gradual increases in weight meant additional health expenses, the researchers found.

The results, based on nearly 180,000 Americans, appear to be bad news.

Looked at differently, however, they also suggest that small improvements in weight could save health care money.

“You might think of it as a glass half full, half empty,” said Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut.


“On the one hand, it’s not just the categorical changes in BMI that increase healthcare costs – it’s also small changes,” said Schwartz, who was not involved in the study.

“On the other hand,” she added, “it suggests that even small improvements in BMI could make a difference.”

BMI, or body mass index, is a measure of weight in relation to height. It is often described in terms of categories: a BMI of 30 to 34.9 is the category “obesity class I”, 35 to 39.9 is “class II” and a BMI of 40 or more is “class III” “Or” severe “obesity.

In this study, once people hit a BMI of 30, even a one-unit increase resulted in an increase in annual health care spending – an additional $ 253 per person.

Not surprisingly, severe obesity carried the highest price – costing $ 3,100 more per person, compared to Americans with normal BMIs.

Still, study leader Zachary Ward agreed the results can be viewed in a positive light.

Even though obese adults cannot lose a substantial amount of weight – a difficult feat, noted Ward – there could be benefits from modest weight loss, or even preventing further weight gain.


“If people can maintain their current weight as they age, it could avoid some of these additional health care costs,” said Ward, a researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health.

The study, published March 24 in the journal PLOS ONE, comes at a time when obesity rates are skyrocketing among Americans. In 2018, more than 42% of American adults were obese, according to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It was an increase from 30%. 100 about 20 years ago.

Just over 9% of adults are severely obese, according to the agency.

The latest results are based on more than 175,000 adults and children who took part in one of two federal health surveys.

Overall, Ward’s team calculates that adult obesity accounted for nearly $ 173 billion in annual medical spending nationwide.

In general, obesity-related health care costs were highest for people in their 60s, Ward said. But, he added, obesity in children and young adults is a concern, in part, because they are likely to be obese as they age.


Ward said childhood is a great time for prevention – both because the sooner the better, and because it is generally easier for programs to reach children.

Schwartz agreed. “It’s so important to focus on good nutrition in childhood,” she said. “And that’s an area the government can regulate.”

Schwartz highlighted efforts to make fresh produce and other healthy foods more accessible to low-income Americans, through the Food Stamp and Women, Infants and Children programs. The National School Lunch Program has also updated its nutritional standards to increase children’s consumption of fruits and vegetables.

But it’s never too late for adults to change their diet or start exercising. It’s an uphill battle, Schwartz noted, and as people get older they struggle with the natural slowing of metabolism.

As the latest findings suggest, even preventing additional weight gain – especially the slide into severe obesity – can be seen as a win.

“Every step in the right direction counts,” said Schwartz.

But for individuals to be successful, she noted, they need help. When healthy choices are made easier – a workplace with fruits and vegetables rather than vending machines full of junk food, for example – people will respond, Schwartz said.


More information

The US Department of Agriculture has advice on low-cost healthy eating.

SOURCES: Zachary Ward, PhD, MPH, research scientist, Center for Health Decision Science, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, Boston; Marlene Schwartz, PhD, Director, Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, and Professor, Human Development and Family Sciences, University of Connecticut, Hartford; PLOS ONE, March 24, 2021, online

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