Slowing the rising rates of obesity in this country by just 1 percent a year over the next two decades would slice the costs of health care by $85 billion.
Keep obesity rates where they are now — well below a 33 percent increase that's been expected by some — and the savings would hit nearly $550 billion over the same 20 years.
Those are two attention-grabbing conclusions from an analysis released this morning at the Weight of the Nation conference in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Researchers from Duke University, RTI International and CDC prepared the analysis, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
It's the latest work that shows the health care costs associated with obesity, and the stark financial consequence of the epidemic.
In the new study, researchers estimate that obesity will continue to rise and will affect 42 percent of adults by 2030. (Obesity represents a body mass index score, a ratio of weight to height, of 30 or higher. Separate estimates for children aren't calculated.)
That projection reflects recent evidence that obesity has leveled off in some groups. So it's lower than an earlier estimate that just over half of the nation's adults would be obese by 2030. It also factors in conditions in the states that can affect the prevalence of obesity, such as unemployment, the availability of fast food, and price differences between healthful and less healthful food items.
While increases in obesity may have slowed some, the health trends still bode poorly — especially for people who are roughly 100 pounds overweight, with body mass index scores of 40 or higher.
That rapidly growing group of severely obese people, who have the most medical problems and incur the highest health care costs, will rise from about 5 percent of the population now to 11 percent by 2030, researchers suggest.
The findings are meant to be a call to action, as experts gathered at the CDC conference consider how best to to combat obesity, a public health problem that affects about 78 million adults and 12.5 million children and adolescents.
Proven interventions are now available. "We know more than ever about the most successful strategies that will help Americans live healthier, more active lives and reduce obesity rates and medical costs," said Dr. William H. Dietz, director of the CDC's division of nutrition, physical activity and obesity, in a prepared statement.
The fight won't be cheap. Still, the new study from Duke, RTI and CDC researchers shows that even a small dent in obesity rates could pay off.