Trimming Obesity Would Save U.S. Cities Billions in Health Care Costs, Study Finds
By Jennifer Warner
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD
Jan. 28, 2011 -- Cities searching for ways to trim the fat and stretch their budget dollars may want to start looking at residents' waistlines.
A new study suggests that trimming high obesity rates in the nation's most overweight cities could help local governments save more than $32 billion annually nationwide in associated health care costs.
New information from the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index shows more than 6 in 10 or 62.9% of American adults were either overweight or obese in 2010, slightly more than the 62.2% reported in 2008.
Researchers estimate that direct health care costs associated with obesity are about $50 million each year per 100,000 residents in U.S. cities with the highest obesity rates.
That means if the nation's 10 most overweight cities -- each with more than a third of its residents classified as obese with a body mass index (BMI) over 30 -- reduced their obesity levels to the 2009 national average of 26.5%, they could collectively save nearly $500 million in health care costs each year.
Obesity Rates Remain High
The 2010 survey of more than 300,000 American adults showed obesity rates nationwide remained essentially unchanged, with 26.5% reported in 2009 and 26.6% in 2010, but higher than the 25.5% reported in 2008. The percentage of Americans classified as overweight with a BMI of 25-29.9 also remained stable at about 36%.
Obesity rates remained highest among African-Americans, with 36% classified as obese in 2010. Low-income and middle-aged adults aged 45 to 64 were also more likely to be obese.
Overall, researchers found obesity levels increased with age until age 65, with a decline in obesity rates thereafter. The groups least likely to be obese include high-income Americans, young adults, and Asian-Americans.
Cities Bear Uneven Obesity Burden
The survey also shows that the burden of obesity in the U.S. continues to vary by city and region. For example, 28% or more of Americans living in the South and Midwest were obese in 2010, compared with less than 26% in the East and less than 24% in the West.
The CDC has set lowering obesity rates to 15% as a nationwide goal. But as of 2009, at least 21 major metropolitan areas had obesity rates more than double that, at 31% or more.
Researchers say if all 187 cities included in the survey reduced their obesity rates to the national goal of 15%, they would save an estimated $1.3 billion annually.
The survey shows health problems like diabetes and heart attacks are more common in cities with the highest obesity rates vs. the lowest.
In addition to chronic health conditions, researchers say residents in the most obese cities were also more likely to report lower energy levels, which can lower productivity levels and may be another hidden economic cost of obesity.
How to Curb High Cost of Obesity
Researchers say communities can help curb the cost of obesity by encouraging healthy behaviors, such as:
- Initiating walking school buses to encourage kids and parents to walk to school. A walking school bus is a group of children walking to school supervised by one or more adult.
- Promoting healthy eating in schools by eliminating sugary drinks and foods that are deep-fried or high in sugar.
- Investing in widening and lengthening walking and biking paths to grocery stores, schools, and mass transit.
- Levying additional taxes on foods that are high in sugar.
- Maintaining security in at-risk neighborhoods to ensure that people feel safe shopping at fresh food stands and farmers markets.
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