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MONDAY, April 7, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Over a lifetime, direct medical costs for an obese 10-year-old will be nearly $20,000 higher than those of slimmer peers, according to new research.
That translates to a whopping $14 billion in additional direct U.S. medical costs over a lifetime for today's obese 10-year-olds, according to the study.
And, those costs only include direct medical costs, such as medications or medical procedures related to obesity. They don't include indirect costs, such as lost productivity and quality-of-life issues, the researchers said.
"Our findings show that the estimated direct medical costs incurred by the obese 10-year-old over his lifetime will be roughly $19,000 higher than that of a child who is normal weight, assuming that both children remain in their respective weight categories," said Wan Chen Kang Graham, a study co-author.
"When we account for the reality that a large proportion of normal-weight 10-year-olds will eventually become obese in adulthood, the difference in lifetime medical costs shrinks to $12,660," added Graham, a Ph.D. student at the Duke-National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School.
Currently, about 20 percent of U.S. children are obese, according to background information in the study. If those children remain obese into adulthood, they'll face higher risks of obesity-related conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, sleep apnea and arthritis. Obesity is also a major cause of disability, lower productivity and higher medical costs, the study authors noted.
For the new analysis, the researchers reviewed available medical literature and found six studies that included obese children and estimates of their lifetime medical costs. Graham said that direct medical costs included "the costs of prescription medications, medical treatments, in- and outpatient care and surgical care."
The investigators found estimates of direct lifetime medical costs ranging from $16,310 to $39,080 higher for obese youngsters than for those of normal weight.
When the researchers adjusted the data to account for the very real possibility of many of the currently normal-weight children becoming obese as adults, the difference in direct medical costs over a lifetime dropped to between $12,660 and $19,630, according to the study.
Graham said these numbers could change if children are able to lose weight and keep it off.
"The magnitude of the direct costs that can be eliminated depends on how long we can keep that child in the normal-weight category over his lifetime," Graham explained.
Dr. Ruby Roy, a chronic disease physician at LaRabida Children's Hospital in Chicago, said data from this type of study "is helpful for insurance companies and policymakers. If we could save $19,000 on each child by paying for nutrition education, overhauling school menus and bringing gym back to all schools, you could see that those are good investments."
Study co-author Graham noted, "Helping children form lifelong habits of healthy eating and regular exercise from an early age is one of the best investments that parents can make in their children's future."
But, Roy also pointed out, "We didn't see this kind of obesity 25 years ago. It's not only about personal and family responsibility. Society needs to change, and we need to change multiple things. We need to work on safety and providing safe places to exercise, portion sizes need to come down and we have to take care of 'food deserts' [places where it's difficult to find fresh, healthy food] among other things."
Results of the study were released online April 7 and in the May print issue of Pediatrics.
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SOURCES: Wan Chen Kang Graham, Ph.D. student, Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, Singapore; Ruby Roy, M.D., chronic disease physician, LaRabida Children's Hospital, Chicago; May 2014, Pediatrics