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Health costs and obesity linked

Posted - Oct. 20, 2004 at 8:20 a.m.



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WASHINGTON - More than a quarter of the phenomenal growth in health care spending over the past 15 years can be attributable to obesity, Emory University researchers reported Tuesday.

With 60 percent of the U.S. population deemed overweight or obese, study author Kenneth Thorpe said the only way to control soaring medical costs is to begin targeting prevention efforts and treatment on the most costly weight-related illnesses, such as diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease.

"We've got to find ways to get the rates of obesity stabilized or falling," Thorpe said. "We need to find effective interventions to deal with this on multiple levels - the schools, at home, in the workplace - because clearly this is a major driver in terms of growth in health care spending."

From 1987 to 2001, medical bills for obese people constituted 27 percent of the growth in overall health care spending, he found. The jump in spending was attributable to a rise in the number of obese Americans and higher costs for treating those patients.

Treating obese patients was 37 percent more expensive than medical care for normal-weight people, Thorpe and colleagues wrote in the journal Health Affairs. Put another way, obesity accounted for an extra $301 per person in medical spending over the 15-year study period.

"The actual numbers are probably higher," Thorpe said, because his team relied on people who self-reported their weight and height.

Federal officials have estimated that treating obesity-related illnesses costs about $93 billion a year, but Thorpe is the first to examine the effect on the overall growth in health spending. The Emory team based its analysis on inflation-adjusted federal data on medical spending and health status.

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