There’s little argument that people with chronic overweight or obesity challenges tend to face related health problems during their lives. Such illnesses as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers have been directly tied to excessive weight.
But what if we could tell someone at age 20, 30 or 40 exactly how much being overweight or obese would cost them during their lifetime? And what if that information would include not just medical costs, but societal costs as well -- primarily lost wages due to lower productivity?
That’s what a team led by Bruce Y. Lee, Associate Professor of International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and Executive Director of the Global Obesity Prevention Center set out to do.
The team reported its findings in an article in Obesity, a research journal published by the Obesity Society. The premise of the research: that the team could create a computer model of individuals “born” at certain weights, and then project out the cost of obesity or being overweight in terms of medical and lost productivity costs.
The results: the computer modeled individuals could save nearly a year’s wages over a normal life span simply by maintaining a BMI appropriate to their physical stature.
Writing about the study in Forbes, Lee said: “On average, going from obesity to normal weight, a-20-year old could save a net present value of more than $28,000 throughout their lifetime, a 40-year-old more than $30,000, a 50-year-old more than $36,000, a 60-year-old more than $34,000, a 70-year-old more than $29,000 and an 80-year-old more than $16,000. Going from overweight to an ideal weight range could save more than $10,000 at any age from 20 to 80, peaking at age 60 ($18,604).”
The key finding of the study may be that at least half, and up to two-thirds, of the cost of added weight can be attributed to lost income. This finding may send obesity research in a new direction, since to date most of the analysis of the cost of being overweight or obese to an individual or health plan sponsor focused on medical costs.
“In many cases, productivity losses constituted as high as nearly two-thirds of the costs,” Lee wrote in his op-ed piece in Forbes. “Since we used median wages, if you make much more, then losing weight could save you substantially more than the numbers we reported.”
The study noted that the actual costs of lost productivity to being obese or overweight could be much higher than projected by the study because the model looked at just the most common weight-related disorders. Joint problems, anxiety and depression were not part of the formula, but could have a major impact on the cost, Lee said.
Another key finding: gradually gaining too much weight extracts a toll on individuals as they age. So addressing early weight gains, perhaps through wellness programs, specific health plan features and related incentives, could lead to considerable workforce savings over time.
“Our results show the incremental health effects and costs of going from normal weight to overweight to obesity, thus demonstrating the value of BMI reduction at different ages and how this changes with increasing patient age; these results could help with decision-making in obesity prevention and control,” the study concluded.