Weighing in on a Big Health Crisis

This post is the first in a series on the ever-increasing costs of health care in America.

Waists, the biggest “Frontier”…These are the expanding voyages of the American Waistline. Their ballooning mission to explore strange new pant sizes, to seek out new girth and new dimensions, to boldly go bigger than any gut has gone before! Moving past the Babylon 5-insprired mangling of Gene Rodenberry’s classic words, let us focus more on the science and less on the fiction. In 2009-10, the latest years for which obesity data are available from the CDC, 35.7% of Americans were obese. Obesity rates among men increases only slightly with income, although education level has little to no correlation with obesity. Amongst women, on the other hand, obesity tends to increase as incomes decrease. And these numbers do not account for numbers of individuals who are overweight but not considered obese.

We are all paying for the price of obesity. A Cornell study found 21% of healthcare costs in the U.S. are in some way related to obesity. In hard dollars, an obese person incurs $2,741 more in healthcare costs per year than their non-obese counterparts; in total this represents $190.2 billion a year in additional healthcare costs. Some of these costs are reflected in Medicaid and Medicare, which means our tax dollars are, at least in part, being used to counter the effects of obesity. Add to these numbers an estimated $153 billion in lost productivity as the result of increased sick days alone and there emerges a bleak picture of mounting costs to the US economy resulting from larger waistlines. You can play with numbers to include chronic conditions related to obesity and lower productivity resulting from workers coming to the office unable to work as efficiently as they might due to all of these conditions. The net cost to the economy as a result of health problems stemming from obesity is as high as $1.1 trillion (not counting direct healthcare expenditures).

The size and scope of the problem extends into areas not considered before. For example, safety experts are concerned that the standards for airline seats require them to support someone weighing up to 170 pounds; The average American man is 194 pounds and the average woman 165 pounds. So is it time to think about larger seats capable of supporting more weight or about reevaluating the way in which our healthcare system interacts with the health of Americans?

In the most basic equation obesity results when someone takes in more calories then he/she expends over a protracted period of time. It is easy to point blame at the individual, but there are serious societal structures that contribute to our growing waistlines. To return to the Star Trek homage, the utopia presented with the franchise is one of relative ease for life’s necessities. Replicators dispense food to fuel momentary desires and transporters whisk people from place to place with no real effort needed. In a sense, we are already living in a similar world. We have no shortage of food in our society and access is fairly easy. Our cities are increasingly spread out and require us to drive to work. At most we have to walk a few hundred feet to get from our cars to our offices or homes and back again. How many of us cruise through parking lots to find the closest spot possible? It may take more time, but we are not putting forth substantially more effort in our daily lives to move and be active than if we had transporter technology. The design of our cities and neighborhoods is linked to our obesity problem. Add to the picture removing PE from schools and an increased reliance on computers, which require us to put forth even less effort than if we were thumbing through volumes of information in hard copy or in a library and you see a picture of a society with a declining amount of calories burned day-to-day. As these trends continue, it is time to think seriously about how we build our cities, structure our lives, produce our foods and get ourselves from place to place. Imagine if we walked 20 minutes to work instead of driving 20 minutes?

Image Courtesy of obesityinamerica.org.