The study, which was authored by a team of researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Global Obesity Prevention Center (GOPC), calculates down to the dollar how much obesity costs over the course of a lifetime. To come up with the numbers, the researchers used data from studies which examined how being obese or overweight affects the risk of strokes, cancer, coronary heart disease, or type-2 diabetes complications. Then they ran that data through a computer model with data on all the costs associated with these health issues. To classify individuals as either obese or overweight, the researchers relied on body mass index (BMI)—which, they acknowledge in the study, is not necessarily the most reliable reflection of health outcomes.
The study broke down how the costs change depending on someone’s age, with the lifetime costs peaking for those who are 50 years old. Taking a healthy 20-year-old as an example, researchers found that being obese added an average of $14,059 in health care costs—either paid by them or their health insurer—over the course of their lifetime. But that’s not all: it would also cost them $14,141 in productivity losses, for a grand total average of $28,020.
The second type of cost—productivity losses—takes into account something that’s easy to overlook. According to study co-author and GOPC executive director Bruce Lee, the productivity losses include everything from accomplishing less in a day to taking more sick days, which contribute to less income over the course of a lifetime. And while these productivity losses will certainly affect the individual, Lee argues that we should also keep in mind how they’ll affect the collective public.
“If you aren’t struggling with weight but other people are, that affects you,” he says. “Someone has to pay for their health care and someone has to pay for their lost productivity.”
This study can easily feel like a double-whammy of weight-shaming and money-shaming. Is it fair to put the blame of our collective health costs on the overweight? But Lee doesn’t see it as pointing fingers at individuals. For him, it’s about addressing a major public health crisis—the obesity epidemic—which the CDC links to leading causes of preventable death.
Lee says that currently, there aren’t enough resources devoted to helping people lose weight and that the healthcare system doesn’t emphasize preventative care as it should. Because the study also showed the cost-savings opportunities in helping someone move from an obese category to an overweight category, or from an overweight category to a normal weight category, it makes the monetary value of weight loss more concrete. Rather than waiting for someone to have a heart attack before investing in their care, Lee says the study shows how much money could be spent on helping that person lose weight instead.
“One of the challenges that we face in our healthcare system is we catch people after they have the disease already. This shows the value of someone walking into the doctor’s office, and they’re currently healthy—no diabetes or cancer—and what is the value in helping them lose weight,” says Lee. “If people know how much money you can save, maybe there will be more resources invested in preventing these diseases down the road.”