In the past 30 years, the percentage of American adults who are obese has doubled, driving a sharp rise in such chronic conditions as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.
The ramifications for health spending are significant. Annual health costs for obese individuals are more than $2,700 higher than for non-obese people. That adds up to about $190 billion every year. And many of these costs are borne by Medicare, which will spend a half-trillion dollars over the next decade on preventable hospital readmissions alone.
Ken Thorpe and Tommy Thompson in USA Today.
The hypothalamus, which monitors the body’s available energy supply, is at the center of the brain’s snack-food signal processing. It keeps track of how much long-term energy is stored in fat by detecting levels of the fat-derived hormone leptin — and it also monitors the body’s levels of blood glucose, minute-to-minute, along with other metabolic fuels and hormones that influence satiety. When you eat a cookie, the hypothalamus sends out signals that make you less hungry. Conversely, when food is restricted, the hypothalamus sends signals that increase your desire to ingest high-calorie foods. The hypothalamus is also wired to other brain areas that control taste, reward, memory, emotion and higher-level decision making. These brain regions form an integrated circuit that was designed to control the drive to eat.
Source: The New York Times.
A common starting point is the assertion that those who are obese impose higher health costs on the rest of the population — a statement which is then taken to justify public policy interventions…We will argue that the existing literature on these topics suggests that obese people on average do bear the costs and benefits of their eating and exercise habits. We begin by estimating the lifetime costs of obesity. We then discuss the extent to which private health insurance pools together obese and thin, whether health insurance causes obesity, and whether being fat might actually cause positive externalities for those who are not obese. If public policy to reduce obesity is not justified on the grounds of external costs imposed on others, then the remaining potential justification would need to be on the basis of helping people to address problems of ignorance or self-control that lead to obesity…
Emory Professor, Kenneth Thorpe, examines the costs of treating obesity-related conditions and found medications that help Medicare enrollees lose weight could save money for Medicare in the long term.
Permanent weight loss of 10 to 15% will yield $9,445 to $15,987 in gross per capita savings throughout their lifetime, and $8,070 to $13,474 over ten years. Similarly, initial weight loss of 10 to 15% followed by 90% weight regain will result in gross per capita savings of $7,556 to $11,109 over their lifetime, and $6,456 to $8,911 over ten years. Targeting weight loss medications to adults with obesity (BMI ≥ 30) produces greater savings to the Medicare program.
There are four key patterns of results that emerge. First, the lagged effect of physical activity is almost always larger than the current effect. This suggests that current risk factors, not only obesity but also high blood pressure and heart rate, take years to develop, which underscores the importance of consistent physical activity to ward off heart disease. Second, we find that in general physical activity reduces risk factors for heart disease even after controlling, to some extent, for unobservable confounding influences. Third, not only recreational but work-related physical activity appears to protect against heart disease. Finally, there is evidence of a dose-response relationship such that higher levels of recreational exercise and other physical activity have a greater protective effect. Our estimates of the contemporaneous and durable effects suggest that the observed declines in high levels of recreational exercise and other physical activity can potentially account for between 12-30% of the increase in obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease observed over the sample period, ceteris paribus.
Source: NBER Working Paper.
That’s all it takes to make us fat. From Timothy Taylor at the Conversable Economist:
The rise in American rates of obesity can be traced back to what seems like a fairly small rise in daily calories consumed, I learned this lesson from an article on the causes of obesity about 10 years back in my own Journal of Economic Perspectives. In “Why Have Americans Become More Obese?” David M. Cutler, Edward L. Glaeser and Jesse M. Shapiro wrote that the “10- to 12-pound increase in median weight we observe in the past two decades requires a net caloric imbalance of about 100 to 150 calories per day. These calorie numbers are strikingly small. One hundred and fifty calories per day is three Oreo cookies or one can of Pepsi. It is about a mile and a half of walking.”