The Cost of Childhood Obesity (Article)

Tackling the obesity problem has been on the forefront of the minds of politicians, doctors, and parents. Childhood obesity, defined as a BMI greater than 99% of the population, affects 20% of the children between the ages of 6 to 19 years old. This rate has doubled during the last two decades. A US Task Force on Childhood Obesity has set an ambitious goal to reduce that number to 5% by 2030. With the help of everyone who cares for children, I believe this is both achievable and cost effective.


Policymakers are interested in knowing the economic costs of childhood obesity, since the government now pays for over 50% of all health care provided in the U.S. We know that 80-90% of obese children remain obese into adulthood; since it is well-documented that obese individuals tend to have higher healthcare costs compared to the rest of the population, it may be possible to estimate how much money can be saved in future healthcare costs by spending money today to prevent childhood obesity. A study published in the journal Pediatrics calculated how much extra money an obese 10-year old will spend over his/her lifetime in healthcare costs compared to a normal weight 10-year old. The results of the analysis are staggering: the authors found that lifetime medical costs of an obese child are $12,000 to $20,000 more than a normal weight child, even when weight gain is taken into account. The lowest estimate–$12,00o–multiplied by the number of obese 10-year olds in America, comes to an overwhelming $9.4 billion. That is 62 times what we are currently spending annually on the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program that has already improved foods in some schools. If we use the higher estimate of $19,000 multiplied by the number of obese 10-year olds, this sum comes to $14 billion, or TWICE the amount we are currently spending annually on the Head Start Program nationwide.


Clearly, the projected dollar amount to be spent on obesity-related healthcare costs in the future for today’s children would likely be offset the cost of preventative action when they are still children. This is why it is more important than ever to focus on preventing obesity…not only to cut government healthcare costs, but also to improve the lives of Americans. What is that old saying? “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This sentiment has always been at the heart of pediatrics, and maybe it should get a seat at the governmental policy table as well?


Your comments are welcome on my blog, Until next time.


Smo Notes:


Lifetime Direct Medical Costs of Childhood Obesity Pediatrics; originally published online April 7, 2014; by Eric Andrew Finkelstein, Wan Chen Kang Graham and Rahul Malhotra

Written collaboratively by Catherine Wu and Paul Smolen M.D.