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Obesity as a cost control mechanism

February 11, 2008

A recent study found that over their lifetime, obese people actually have less healthcare expenditures than non-obese people. Per year, obese people have more medical expenditures, but in general, they tend to die sooner than non-obese people.

Compared to smokers and obese people, the non-obese, non-smoking control group incurred the most lifetime medical costs, as they live longer and become more susceptible to expensive-to-treat diseases as they age.  The study concludes that:

Although effective obesity prevention leads to a decrease in costs of obesity-related diseases, this decrease is offset by cost increases due to diseases unrelated to obesity in life-years gained. Obesity prevention may be an important and cost-effective way of improving public health, but it is not a cure for increasing health expenditures.

Translation:  Making people skinnier means they will live longer and incur increased lifetime medical expenditures relative to their obese contemporaries.  If no one was obese, our healthcare costs would go up because everyone would be living much longer.  Note this would likely also mean a huge Medicare cost increase, as we would have more seniors needing more treatments.

As Slate points out, the study left out any non-medical costs, such as productivity losses associated with dying younger or increased Social Security benefits for healthy seniors living longer.  It would be interesting to see an estimate that identifies and incorporates some of these costs.  Getting an accurate quantification of such costs would be very difficult, which is probably why the authors chose to focus only on explicit medical costs.

So while we can debate obesity as a public health issue, at least according to this study it is not a factor contributing to our country’s spiraling health care costs.

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