Smoking has been on the top of the list for decades as the greatest contributor to U.S. health care costs. But today obesity adds about twice as much to rising health care costs than smoking does. In fact, the latest estimate of the burden of obesity on the health care system is also more than twice what was previously thought.
Obesity cost underestimated
The latest government estimate determined the impact of obesity on U.S. health care costs at $85.7 billion, or 9.1 percent. But a new Cornell University study published in the Journal of Health Economics found that obesity actually accounts for nearly 21 percent of national health expenditures.
The new numbers
Previous estimates on the cost of obesity focused solely on the difference between the medical expenses of heavier and lighter people. The authors of the Cornell study said that method is inaccurate because obese and non-obese individuals differ in many ways. Their approach measures the impact of obesity on medical expenses by estimating how obesity raises the cost of treating nearly any medical condition.
The numbers can add up quickly. Medical expenses for an obese person were $2,741 higher (in 2005 dollars) than if they were not obese. Nationwide, that pencils out to $190.2 billion per year, or 20.6 percent of national health expenditures. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking adds about $96 billion to U.S. health care costs.
Obesity vs. smoking
Researchers at the Mayo Clinic analyzed the health insurance coverage of more than 30,000 Mayo Clinic employees and retirees and found that smoking and obesity led to the highest excess cost for health care. On average, smokers had health care costs $1,275 higher than nonsmokers. The average additional cost for obese workers surpassed that of smokers at $1,850. For the morbidly obese, the average additional cost was $5,500.
Tip of the iceberg?
Authors of the Mayo Clinic study said that because of the 7-year follow up period of their study, the longer-term health care costs of obesity could still be underestimated because of the increased risk for myriad chronic illnesses. The new numbers from both studies further underscore the potential benefits of preventing and reducing obesity.
Lower your medical expenses
Losing just 5 to 10 percent of body weight can lower a person’s chances for developing coronary heart disease or having a stroke. If you weigh 200 pounds, this means losing as little as 10 pounds. The weight loss will lower potential medical expenses by decreasing inflammation throughout the body, lowering blood pressure, triglyceride, and cholesterol levels and improving heart function and blood circulation.
Your employer will thank you.