Obesity is a major cause of morbidity and mortality and is associated with high medical expenditures. It has been suggested that obesity prevention could result in cost savings. The objective of this study was to estimate the annual and lifetime medical costs attributable to obesity, to compare those to similar costs attributable to smoking, and to discuss the implications for prevention.
Methods and Findings
With a simulation model, lifetime health-care costs were estimated for a cohort of obese people aged 20 y at baseline. To assess the impact of obesity, comparisons were made with similar cohorts of smokers and “healthy-living” persons (defined as nonsmokers with a body mass index between 18.5 and 25). Except for relative risk values, all input parameters of the simulation model were based on data from The Netherlands. In sensitivity analyses the effects of epidemiologic parameters and cost definitions were assessed. Until age 56 y, annual health expenditure was highest for obese people. At older ages, smokers incurred higher costs. Because of differences in life expectancy, however, lifetime health expenditure was highest among healthy-living people and lowest for smokers. Obese individuals held an intermediate position. Alternative values of epidemiologic parameters and cost definitions did not alter these conclusions.
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.
Using a simulation model, Pieter van Baal and colleagues conclude that obesity prevention leads to a decrease in costs of obesity-related diseases, but this is offset by cost increases due to diseases unrelated to obesity in life-years gained.
Since the mid 1970s, the proportion of people who are obese (people who have an unhealthy amount of body fat) has increased sharply in many countries. One-third of all US adults, for example, are now classified as obese, and recent forecasts suggest that by 2025 half of US adults will be obese. A person is overweight if their body mass index (BMI, calculated by dividing their weight in kilograms by their height in meters squared) is between 25 and 30, and obese if BMI is greater than 30. Compared to people with a healthy weight (a BMI between 18.5 and 25), overweight and obese individuals have an increased risk of developing many diseases, such as diabetes, coronary heart disease and stroke, and tend to die younger. People become unhealthily fat by consuming food and drink that contains more energy than they need for their daily activities. In these circumstances, the body converts the excess energy into fat for use at a later date. Obesity can be prevented, therefore, by having a healthy diet and exercising regularly.
Why Was This Study Done?
Because obesity causes so much illness and premature death, many governments have public-health policies that aim to prevent obesity. Clearly, the improvement in health associated with the prevention of obesity is a worthwhile goal in itself but the prevention of obesity might also reduce national spending on medical care. It would do this, the argument goes, by reducing the amount of money spent on treating the diseases for which obesity is a risk factor. However, some experts have suggested that these short-term savings might be offset by spending on treating the diseases that would occur during the extra lifespan experienced by non-obese individuals. In this study, therefore, the researchers have used a computer model to calculate yearly and lifetime medical costs associated with obesity in The Netherlands.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers used their model to estimate the number of surviving individuals and the occurrence of various diseases for three hypothetical groups of men and women, examining data from the age of 20 until the time when the model predicted that everyone had died. The “obese” group consisted of never-smoking people with a BMI of more than 30; the “healthy-living” group consisted of never-smoking people with a healthy weight; the “smoking” group consisted of lifetime smokers with a healthy weight. Data from the Netherlands on the costs of illness were fed into the model to calculate the yearly and lifetime health-care costs of all three groups. The model predicted that until the age of 56, yearly health costs were highest for obese people and lowest for healthy-living people. At older ages, the highest yearly costs were incurred by the smoking group. However, because of differences in life expectancy (life expectancy at age 20 was 5 years less for the obese group, and 8 years less for the smoking group, compared to the healthy-living group), total lifetime health spending was greatest for the healthy-living people, lowest for the smokers, and intermediate for the obese people.
What Do These Findings Mean?
As with all mathematical models such as this, the accuracy of these findings depend on how well the model reflects real life and the data fed into it. In this case, the model does not take into account varying degrees of obesity, which are likely to affect lifetime health-care costs, nor indirect costs of obesity such as reduced productivity. Nevertheless, these findings suggest that although effective obesity prevention reduces the costs of obesity-related diseases, this reduction is offset by the increased costs of diseases unrelated to obesity that occur during the extra years of life gained by slimming down.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050029.
The MedlinePlus encyclopedia has a page on obesity (in English and Spanish)
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information on all aspects of obesity (in English and Spanish)
The UK National Health Service's health Web site (NHS Direct) provides information about obesity
The International Obesity Taskforce provides information about preventing obesity
The UK Foods Standards Agency, the United States Department of Agriculture, and Shaping America's Health all provide useful advice about healthy eating
The Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) Web site provides more information on the cost of illness and illness prevention in the Netherlands (in English and Dutch)