Obesity is the next major health concern now that smoking has been largely conquered, and there are some pretty serious implications of Americans getting larger: the strain on the healthcare system will be enormous, the overall health of the population will decline, and adult life spans will decline, making the Baby Boomers or Generation X the first generation in US history to have a lower longevity than their parents.
The CDC is projecting that adult obesity rates will reach 42% by 2030, with a quarter of all American adults in the “severely obese” range. If this is true, the article says, the added cost to our society could be another $550 billion on top of the $2.6 trillion already spent on healthcare.
This may have other impacts on society as well:
The new study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, used obesity prevalence data from 1990 through 2008 to extrapolate future trends. The information came from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a federally funded telephone survey. People underestimate their weight when asked on the phone; that fact was compensated for in the mathematical model.
The researchers also incorporated variables, measured in each state, that affect obesity rates. These included the price of gasoline, which discourages walking when it is low; access to the Internet (and other technologies), which encourages sedentary behavior as it increases; and restaurants per 10,000 people, which increases eating out and weight gain when the number goes up.
Source: The Washington Post
Of course, like any projection, the 42% obesity figure makes a number of assumptions, some of which may invalidate the entire forecast. In fact, the very same article says that a competing theory is that obesity rates have plateaued at the current range, 35.7%. The article also doesn’t mention if the growth is expected to occur in younger adults who are moving from overweight to obese or if it’s meant to occur in older adults as they retire. The implications for either scenario are vastly different in terms of public health policy.
The projections are also making use of a metric called BMI (Body Mass Index). Unfortunately, this metric is not the best possible choice, because it bases ideal measurements off height and weight and doesn’t take body shape into account. It’s also not a good metric for children. There have been cases where BMI has been applied towards children who are three pounds off their target weight and labeled obese (despite appearing as happy and healthy as any child should!). An significant increase in adults with a higher BMI is certainly a trend worth attention, but it’s always important to ask what those metrics are telling us and whether they’re being appropriately applied to the population.
Still, all of this suggests that even if BMI is not the most appropriate metric and adult obesity rates have plateaued, the health of everyday Americans could be better (and if it were improved, it could save our society hundreds of billions of dollars on healthcare!). But with studies suggesting that the brain is hard-wired against losing weight the body’s put on, reversing the trend may require much more than wishful thinking.