Taking stock of obesity and its costly effects

Recognized as a disease by the American Medical Association, obesity impacts approximately 42% of U.S. adults and almost one out of 10 adults experience severe obesity.

Nick McGeeDecember 8, 2023

Taking stock of obesity and its costly effects.

Recognized as a disease by the American Medical Association, obesity impacts approximately 42% of U.S. adults and almost one out of 10 adults experience severe obesity. Without the help of new medicines, the costly effects of obesity are expected to get worse.

  • Greater risk of other deadly diseases. The Milken Institute warns that, as a risk factor, obesity is “by far the greatest contributor to the burden of chronic diseases in the U.S.” and accounts for nearly half of all costs of chronic disease nationwide. Nearly 500,000 deaths are due to obesity each year. Obesity is associated with at least 200 or more other often life-threatening conditions, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and certain types of cancer.

  • Deeper health care disparities. Like many diseases, the burden of obesity impacts certain groups of individuals more than others. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Black adults face the highest prevalence of both obesity (49.6%) and severe obesity (13.8%). Black women are especially at risk when compared to their female peers, with the prevalence of obesity in Black women standing at nearly 57%.

  • Higher health care costs. While estimates vary, after adding all the costs associated with related chronic illnesses, obesity’s direct medical costs exceed an estimated $248 billion annually. Over the next 10 years the combined Medicare and Medicaid spending on obesity and obesity-related diseases will total $4.1 trillion.

  • Lost economic opportunity. Chronic disease caused by obesity and being overweight costs $1.24 trillion in lost economic productivity annually. There are also added costs placed on employers, such as higher insurance premiums and disability payments.

Researchers have tried for many decades to develop treatment options that can help people safely and effectively address obesity. Biopharmaceutical research companies now have multiple anti-obesity medicines from an emerging class of therapy approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and even more innovative approaches in the R&D pipeline.

This “new crop of therapies,” the Washington Post reported, is being hailed by experts as a “medical milestone” and “a long-sought way to transform the treatment of obesity.”

These groundbreaking treatments have shown average weight loss of approximately 15%-20%. And not only have they demonstrated prior success in the treatment of diabetes, but they are now showing initial success in testing at reducing the consequences of other diseases. This includes reducing major cardiovascular events, such as stroke and heart attacks, and lowering the risk of cardiovascular death.

While these promising anti-obesity medicines have sparked new hope for people with obesity, they’ve also sparked a debate about how best to ensure people can get them. It’s an important discussion and one that should start by taking stock of the many ways obesity impacts the lives of patients and society more broadly. The staggering statistics make clear why these innovative treatments must be accessible and affordable for those who need them. 

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