Individuals’ Medical Costs Rise With Increasing Obesity

Overweight and obese individuals incur up to $1,500 more in annual medical costs than healthy-weight individuals, according to a two-year study of nearly 200,000 employees of General Motors.

Average annual medical costs for normal weight individuals in the study were $2,225, while costs for overweight and obese individuals rose steadily, from $2,388 for overweight individuals to $3,753 for the most severely obese persons.

The study, by Dee W. Edington, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan and colleagues, is the first to examine the relationship between medical costs and the six weight groups defined by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute's weight guidelines. The guidelines separate individuals into categories of underweight, healthy-weight, overweight and three different obesity designations, based on average body mass index.

The findings highlight the economic burden that obesity places on society, Edington and colleagues note. In 1994, researchers conservatively estimated the direct medical costs of obesity in the United States at $51.6 billion dollars.

Controlling weight and obesity-related health conditions "is especially important to corporations, where the percentage of revenue spent on medical benefits continues to increase," say the study authors.

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Edington and colleagues analyzed weight, height, gender, age and annual medical costs charged per person and found that 40 percent of the GM employees in the study were overweight and 21.3 percent of employees were obese. Healthy-weight employees made up 37 percent of those in the study, while 1.5 percent of the employees were considered underweight.

In general, annual median medical costs were lowest for the healthy-weight group, compared with both underweight and overweight and obese groups. Medical costs steadily increased as body mass index increased, for the most part regardless of gender or age. The relationship between BMI and medical costs was unclear for the oldest males in the group, ages 75 and older.

Although the study does not consider any specific links between obesity and medical costs, the authors note that "it has already been established that overweight and obese conditions can lead to many chronic diseases and excess health care utilization."

The study is published in the January/February issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

Source: Health Behavior News Service