Cost of Obesity

cost of obesityNew research published in the Journal of Health Economics found that obesity now accounts for 21 percent of healthcare spending in the United States. This figure is more than twice the previous estimate of just over 9 percent.  Researchers at Cornell University used new methods to calculate the causal effects of obesity on medical costs, finding that an obese person’s medical costs are $2,741 higher than someone who is not obese. This cost multiplied by the estimate of obese people in the US translates to nearly 200 billion per year, roughly 21 percent of national medical expenditures.

For the study, the researchers measured the cost of obesity by treating the heritable component of weight as a natural experiment. In the past, studies have simply calculated the difference between the medical expenses of heavier and lighter people. This is a misleading estimate of the causal effect because obese and non-obese individuals have so many differences. As an example, if one has a back injury at work it may lead to them gaining weight. The injury could also lead to a lot of medical costs that are due to the back injury, not obesity.

The risks of cancer, stroke, heart attack, and diabetes are all elevated with obesity.  Also, when obese people have any type of surgery, there tend to be more complications with anesthesia as well as with post-operative healing. Obesity increases the costs of treating almost any medical condition and the costs pile up rapidly.

The results of this study provide a stronger case for government intervention to prevent and treat obesity. However, thus far, most efforts to address America’s obesity epidemic have emphasized lifestyle changes: better eating habits, more physical activity. But for Americans already afflicted by obesity, lifestyle changes alone may not cut it. A growing body of research is showing that for many obese people, a more drastic approach might be necessary.  For these people, bariatric surgery, such as the Lap-Band, sleeve gastrectomy or gastric bypass procedure, may be the best treatment. Two studies recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that many people who receive weight loss surgery have remarkable improvements or even remission of diabetes, and are also more successful at keeping diabetes at bay in the long-term.  Additional health benefits include improvement in hypertension and obstructive sleep apnea, decreases in cholesterol levels and a nearly 50 percent drop in the risk of heart disease–all of which mean less medical spending for weight loss surgery patients down the road, shaving down the national cost of obesity.

Dr. Adam Smith, expert weight loss surgeon in Texas, commented on the study. He said: “This article reinforces the fact that weight loss surgery is not cosmetic surgery or elective surgery, but rather a critical fundamental tool in the prevention and treatment of diseases that raise the cost of healthcare for all of us, as well as preventing and treating the root cause of diseases affecting us as individuals, and the whole community.”

Related Reading:

Recalculating the Obesity Epidemic–the American obesity epidemic may be even worse than experts believe.

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