Obesity could affect 42% of Americans by 2030

3:51 PM, May 8, 2012   |    comments
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WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) - If Americans continue to pack on pounds, 42% may end up obese by 2030, and 11% could be severely obese, adding billions of dollars to health care costs, according to new projections released today.

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. He presented his analysis at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "Weight of the Nation" meeting, where experts are discussing strategies for the prevention and control of obesity. 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, and it costs billions of dollar in extra medical expenditures.

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.

To predict future obesity rates, Finkelstein and colleagues did 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.

If the obesity rate stays at 2010 levels instead of rising to 42% as predicted, then the country could save more than $549.5 billion in weight-related medical expenditures between now and 2030, says study co-author Justin Trogdon, a research economist with RTI International, a non-profit research organization in North Carolina's Research Triangle Park.

"Halting the epidemic will substantially reduce the burden of future chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes and save billions of dollars," says William Dietz, director of CDC's Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity.

Patrick O'Neil, president of the Obesity Society, a group of weight-control researchers and professionals, says that these new projections "indicate that even more people will be losing loved ones because of obesity, and others will be suffering sickness and living lives that fall short of their promise because of obesity."

Trogdon says the current childhood obesity epidemic, with a third of children overweight or obese, could have a major effect on future adult obesity rates and related health care costs because heavy kids often become heavy adults.

Rebecca Puhl, director of research of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, says, "If we want to reduce obesity, we have to change the conditions that created it in the first place, with less advertising of unhealthy foods to children, easier access to healthy foods for everyone, improved physical education requirements in all schools, environments that make it easier for people to be active, and taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages."