According to the latest estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one third of kids and adolescents in the US are overweight or obese. And now, researchers looking at total lifetime medical costs have estimated that, per head, childhood obesity costs $19,000 more than lifetime costs for normal weight children.
The researchers, led by Eric Andrew Finkelstein, PhD, MHA, from the Duke Global Health Institute and Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore, publish their results in the journal Pediatrics.
"Reducing childhood obesity is a public health priority that has substantial health and economic benefits," says Finkelstein. "These estimates provide the financial consequences of inaction and the potential medical savings from obesity prevention efforts that successfully reduce or delay obesity onset."
One of his co-authors, Dr. Rahul Malhotra, says that, in order to address the public health issue of obesity, reducing obesity among children is key as "most obese children and teenagers remain obese into adulthood."
Alarmingly, when the team multiplied the $19,000 price tag by the number of obese 10 year olds in the US, the researchers found lifetime costs for that age group alone reached roughly $14 billion.
But of course, it is not only about the price tag. Obesity is linked to a number of diseases, from cardiovascular disease to type 2 diabetes and some cancers, making it a major health problem for the population.
"Public health interventions should be prioritized on their ability to improve health at a reasonable cost," says Finkelstein. "In order to understand the cost implications of obesity prevention efforts, it is necessary to accurately quantify the burden of childhood obesity if left untreated."
'Motivation to prevent childhood obesity should be regardless of financials'
In order to estimate the lifetime medical costs associated with childhood obesity, the team assessed and updated the current evidence available.
Using this evidence, the researchers also estimated - along with the $19,000 price tag for obese children - that the lifetime cost for normal weight children who become obese in adulthood is $12,900 per person.
Fast facts about child obesity
- In 2012, more than one third of US children and adolescents were overweight or obese.
- Obese kids are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
- Obesity is associated with increased risk for many types of cancer in the long term.
Though the lifetime costs are staggering, there may be a limitation to the study, in that the researchers only included direct medical costs for obesity in their analysis - including doctors' visits and medication.
They did not take into account indirect costs, such as absenteeism and lost productivity in working adults, so they say more research is needed for this.
"For the same reasons we don't let kids drink or smoke and force them to go to school, we should also do our best to keep them at a healthy weight," says Finkelstein.
"While the cost estimates are significant," he adds, "the motivation to prevent childhood obesity should be there regardless of the financial implications."
In 2009, fast food restaurants agreed - in the wake of childhood obesity - to include healthy foods in ads aimed at children, but a recent study suggests the healthy message is being lost in poor depictions of the foods.
Medical News Today also reported on research that showed children who are overweight or obese by kindergarten are four times more likely to be obese in eighth grade, suggesting obesity-prevention efforts should be aimed at younger children.