This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 16, 2014.
The toll childhood obesity takes on Americans’ lifelong health is well documented, but new research from Duke University looks at its lifetime monetary price tag. Spoiler: The per-person cost for medical care is more than a year of college.
Duke researchers considered the current and future prices of doctor visits, medication and treatment for conditions linked to obesity, like heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. They determined that, over a lifetime, an obese child who grows into an obese adult will spend $19,000 more in medical care than a normal-weight child who maintains normal weight as an adult.
Scientists acknowledge that many normal-weight children will gain weight in adulthood and their medical costs will rise. But even when they factored in those increases, obese children still had $12,900 more in lifetime costs. The researchers published their findings online this month in the journal Pediatrics.
The study’s authors write that costs of programs that prevent or treat childhood obesity should be weighed against the large projected costs of leaving it untreated. But dollars aren’t the only motivation.
“For the same reasons we don’t let kids drink or smoke and force them to go to school, we should also do our best to keep them at a healthy weight,” the study’s lead author, Dr. Eric Andrew Finkelstein, said in a statement. “While the cost estimates are significant, the motivation to prevent childhood obesity should be there regardless of the financial implications.”
Here are the numbers:
1 in 5
American kids between the ages of 6 and 19 are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s twice as many as 20 years ago.
The average cost of one year of college at a public four-year institution, including tuition, fees, books, room and board and other expenses. Duke researchers point out that the $19,000 saved in preventing one case of childhood obesity could fund at least a year of the child’s college education.
The total when the $19,000 per-person cost is multiplied by the number of obese 10-year-olds in the United States today. Multiplying by the more conservative $12,900 per-person cost totals more than $9.4 billion.
For comparison’s sake, Duke researchers note $9.4 billion is 62 times the cost of one federal obesity prevention program. In the 2012-13 school year, the USDA spent $150 million on the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which allowed schools to serve fresh produce snacks two or more days a week.