Obesity and obesity related illness accounts for an enormous health care expenditure in the US today: approaching 150 billion dollars annually. In an era of health care reform and cost containment, preventative medicine is essential to success. Rather than rearranging networks, separating doctors from patients and limiting choice, our government may be more effective in reducing health care costs by focusing on slimming waistlines throughout the US.
According to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, nearly 30% of adults and 17% of children are classified as obese. According to the Centers for Disease Control, obesity in children has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the last 30 years. Obesity rates in adults have remained constant — if not increased — over the study period. In fact, in women over age 60, obesity rates have increased from 31 to 38%. It is clear that obesity directly results in the development of diabetes, heart disease and other potentially debilitating chronic illnesses.
Data from previous studies clearly identifies habits developed in childhood as a primary determinant of obesity as an adult. In fact, childhood obesity is almost always associated with obesity and health problems during adulthood. A recent study published in Pediatrics provided a specific cost analysis of childhood obesity and found that each obese child results in an individual $19,000 health care cost increase as compared to a child of normal weight. Moreover, when the researchers multiplied the &19,000 figure by the number of 10-year-olds who were estimated to be obese in the US today, they calculated the total lifetime healthcare expenditure in this age group alone to be more than 14 billion dollars.
The adverse effects and negative impacts of obesity on our children stretch far beyond the staggering dollar figures that are illustrated in this most recent study. Obese children are more likely to have risk factors for heart disease and are at increased risk for certain types of cancers. Pre-diabetes is common in obese children and many develop Type 2 diabetes before adulthood. Children with weight problems are more likely to suffer from depression and other mental health disorders including poor self esteem. Development of such significant medical problems at an early age can prevent a child from truly enjoying the process of growing up and can limit choices and opportunities later in life.
Children of obese parents are far more likely to be obese themselves. America is becoming a culture of sedentary adults (and now children) — increased calorie intake and diminished calorie output. Our children model behaviors that they witness in adults and other mentors. Modeling healthy habits such as regular physical activity and healthy eating can directly impact children and significantly reduce the chances of becoming obese. Habits developed during childhood become part of our daily routine and are incorporated into our system of values and become second nature. If we, as adults, put a priority on diet and exercise early in life, we make it much easier for our children to develop and maintain a healthy lifestyle well into adulthood.
This most recent study should serve as a call to action: Americans are fat and are getting fatter. The time to intervene is now. We must set better examples for our children. In a world full of fast food and calorie dense meal choices, we must do a better job demonstrating responsible lifestyle choices. Fill the house with fruits and healthy snacks and avoid fast food meals whenever possible. Help children learn to choose wisely. Parents must encourage more outdoor activities, regular exercise and limit screen time.
As health care costs continue to rise, we must focus on prevention. Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure are significant contributors to our overall health care costs and all of these diseases are more likely to occur in those who are obese. As a nation, we must become more health conscious and make daily exercise and healthy eating part of our culture — only then will we be able to impact obesity and set an example for change. Only then will we begin to reverse the obesity epidemic of the last 30 years and improve the lives of our children and the generations to come.
Kevin R. Campbell is a cardiac electrophysiologist who blogs at his self-titled site, Dr. Kevin R. Campbell, MD.