Obesity accounts for 21% of US health care costs

Obesity now accounts for almost 21% of all US health care costs, more than twice the previous estimates, according to a study conducted by researchers at Cornell University.

The study, published in the January issue of the Journal of Health Economics, reports that an obese person incurs medical costs that are $2,741 higher (in 2005 dollars) than if they were not obese. That translates into $190.2 billion per year nationwide, or 20.6% of national health expenditures.

To find these estimates, the researchers approximated the effect of obesity on medical expenses by treating the heritable component of weight as a natural experiment. Previous studies have reported the differences in medical expenses between heavier and lighter people, but this can be misleading because it does not differentiate between obese and non-obese people.

“For example, I could injured my back at work, and that may have led me to gain weight,” John Cawley, PhD, a professor of policy analysis and management of economics at Cornell and lead author of the study, stated in a press release. “The injury could lead to a lot of health care costs that are due to my back, not my obesity.”

The research provides evidence that could influence policymakers when making decisions about funding obesity prevention programs.

“Historically we’ve been underestimating the benefit of preventing and reducing obesity,” Cawley said. “Obesity raises the risk of cancer, stroke, heart attack and diabetes. For any type of surgery, there are complications with anesthesia and with healing. Obesity raises the costs of treating almost any medical condition. It adds up very quickly.”


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