neon fast food sign photographed from behindShare on Pinterest
How much will obesity cost the economy by 2060? Luca Pianigiani/EyeEm/Getty Images
  • A recent study investigates the economic impact of obesity.
  • According to this research, the projected costs associated with obesity will account for an average of 3.6% of a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 2060.
  • Maintaining the 2019 rates of obesity or decreasing its prevalence by 5% from projected levels would reduce annual costs by up to 13% for some countries.

Obesity is associated with higher healthcare costs and a lower quality of life, as well as disability and premature mortality.

Currently, obesity contributes to more than 5 million deaths each year, globally.

According to a recent observational study, which appears in BMJ Global Health, obesity increased in every single country across the world between 1975 and 2016. Current estimates predict that if this rate continues, the condition will have a direct impact on the global economy.

Scientists from the Research Triangle Institute in Washington, D.C., and the London-based World Obesity Federation measured the impact of obesity on a nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2019. Then, they calculated the projected increase in costs by the year 2060.

According to the Bank of England, GDP “measures the size of a country’s economy.”

For their analysis, the researchers focused on eight countries: Australia, Brazil, India, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Spain, and Thailand.

They found that, across the eight countries, medical costs currently comprise 90% of total direct expenditures related to obesity.

Additionally, informal caregiving now makes up 90% of direct nonmedical costs, whereas early mortality is responsible for 56–92% of total indirect costs associated with obesity.

Looking at individual countries, 2019 per capita costs of obesity in US dollars ranged from $17 in India to as much as $940 in Australia. Overall, these costs equate to an average of 1.76% of the GDP.

India currently accounts for the lowest cost per capita at just 0.8%, while Saudi Arabia stands at 2.4%, the highest cost per capita.

Such stark variability in current national costs is also reflected in the projected rate of increase per nation by 2060.

Regardless of current standings, obesity costs in the eight countries are likely to rise at varying speeds. For instance, the researchers forecast a 19-fold increase in obesity-related costs in India, whereas in Spain, rates are expected to double.

By 2060, obesity-related costs are projected to grow to 3.6% of the GDP on average, ranging from 2.4% of GDP in Spain to 4.9% of GDP in Thailand.

The researchers selected 28 health conditions with strong links to obesity to help predict the costs associated with obesity.

Dr. Rachel Nugent, Ph.D., study co-author and vice president of RTI International, spoke with Medical News Today about the study. We asked which diseases were likely to have the most significant effect on the economic impact of obesity.

Dr. Nugent explained that two of the most important are “diabetes — alone and with comorbidities — and hypertensive heart disease.” For both of these, a high percentage of “the health burden [is] attributable to high BMI.”

Dr. Nugent also listed the other categories of disease that the team included in its analysis: “cardiovascular disease, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases, musculoskeletal disorders, endocrine diseases, sense organ diseases, chronic kidney disease, neurological and digestive diseases.”

The authors of the study predict that “the prevalence of obesity will increase to about 57% of the population in India and to about 93% of the population in Saudi Arabia in 2060.”

Considering that India has the lowest incidence of obesity worldwide, these numbers are in direct proportion to the predicted 19-fold increase in that particular country’s GDP for 2060.

The researchers offer two hypothetical cost saving scenarios based on either a future reduction in obesity rates or a stabilization of the 2019 rate.

If the prevalence of obesity were to decrease by 5% from projected 2060 levels, an average annual cost saving of 5.18% would be likely across the eight countries between 2021 and 2060.

Moreover, if obesity rates were to remain completely stable over the ensuing decades, nations could expect as much as 13.18% in annual savings on average.

The study authors note several limitations in their research data that could have led them to under- or overestimate the future global economic impact of obesity.

As countries vary significantly in their disease burdens and their individual economic growth rates, the true cost saving or cost increasing effects of changing obesity levels are uncertain.

Additionally, although obesity poses a clear burden globally, future technological and medical advancements that extend life or curtail disease rates could also greatly affect the future estimates that this study cites.

Dr. Nugent also spoke with MNT about the effects of obesity during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic:

“In 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were over 5 million deaths attributable to obesity across the globe from numerous related noncommunicable diseases, including stroke, asthma, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer.”

“As the world began to grapple with the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” she continued, “it quickly became clear that those living with obesity were at higher risk for hospitalization, poorer outcomes, and death. Obesity is a disease that does not receive adequate prioritization relative to its growing prevalence and impact as a risk factor for noncommunicable diseases and, as we are now acutely aware, infectious disease.”