Research Article: Lifetime Medical Costs of Obesity: Prevention No Cure for Increasing Health Expenditure

Date Published: February 5, 2008

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Pieter H. M van Baal, Johan J Polder, G. Ardine de Wit, Rudolf T Hoogenveen, Talitha L Feenstra, Hendriek C Boshuizen, Peter M Engelfriet, Werner B. F Brouwer, Andrew Prentice

Abstract: BackgroundObesity is a major cause of morbidity and mortality and is associated with high medical expenditures. It has been suggested that obesity prevention could result in cost savings. The objective of this study was to estimate the annual and lifetime medical costs attributable to obesity, to compare those to similar costs attributable to smoking, and to discuss the implications for prevention.Methods and FindingsWith a simulation model, lifetime health-care costs were estimated for a cohort of obese people aged 20 y at baseline. To assess the impact of obesity, comparisons were made with similar cohorts of smokers and “healthy-living” persons (defined as nonsmokers with a body mass index between 18.5 and 25). Except for relative risk values, all input parameters of the simulation model were based on data from The Netherlands. In sensitivity analyses the effects of epidemiologic parameters and cost definitions were assessed. Until age 56 y, annual health expenditure was highest for obese people. At older ages, smokers incurred higher costs. Because of differences in life expectancy, however, lifetime health expenditure was highest among healthy-living people and lowest for smokers. Obese individuals held an intermediate position. Alternative values of epidemiologic parameters and cost definitions did not alter these conclusions.ConclusionsAlthough effective obesity prevention leads to a decrease in costs of obesity-related diseases, this decrease is offset by cost increases due to diseases unrelated to obesity in life-years gained. Obesity prevention may be an important and cost-effective way of improving public health, but it is not a cure for increasing health expenditures.

Partial Text: Because obesity is acknowledged as a major cause of morbidity and mortality [1,2], prevention of obesity is a target of health policy in many countries [3,4]. At the same time, many countries struggle to control ever-increasing health-care expenditures. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development suggested in 2005 that both goals could be achieved simultaneously, since “well-designed public health programmes may contribute to the prevention of illness and help relieve some of the cost pressures on health care systems” [5]. Such a promise of better health equaling lower costs is not new [6], yet is debatable. In fact, for smoking it has been argued that successful prevention will in the end increase expenditure exactly because it is successful [7,8]. The explanation for this hypothesis is that the life-years gained by prevention are not all lived in full health. While effective prevention will lead to a decrease in risk factor-related diseases, which may result in savings, these savings may be offset by cost increases related to an increase in diseases in life-years gained. Therefore, prevention may induce more health-care costs in the long run than it saves in the short run. Whether this possibility is true, however, will strongly depend on the risk factor concerned. An important determinant is whether this risk factor primarily causes relatively cheap lethal diseases or rather expensive chronic ones [9]. Since the diseases associated with obesity differ from those associated with smoking it is worthwhile to investigate whether or not prevention of obesity might indeed, as is sometimes suggested, relieve financial pressures on health-care systems. If it does not, of course, it does not imply that preventing obesity is not worthwhile, since the associated health gain is valuable in itself, for society and the individuals concerned.

To estimate annual and lifetime health-care costs conditional on the presence of risk factors, the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment chronic disease model (RIVM-CDM) was used. The RIVM-CDM is a dynamic population model that describes the life course of cohorts in terms of transitions between risk factor classes and changes between disease states over time. Smoking classes distinguished in the model are never-smokers, current smokers, and former smokers. Body weight is modeled in three classes using body mass index (BMI) as an indicator: 18.5 ≤ BMI < 25 (normal weight), 25 ≤ BMI < 30 (overweight), BMI ≥ 30 (obese). The RIVM-CDM has been used in disease projections and cost effectiveness analyses [21–25]. With the model we estimated survivor numbers and disease prevalence numbers for three different hypothetical cohorts consisting of 500 men and 500 women aged 20 y at baseline: (1) an “obese” cohort, never-smoking men and women aged 20 with a BMI above 30; (2) a “healthy-living” cohort, never-smoking men and women aged 20 with normal weight (18.5 ≤ BMI < 25); and (3) a “smoking” cohort, men and women aged 20 with normal weight who had smoked throughout their life. Table 1 shows remaining life expectancy and the lifetime health-care costs for the three cohorts, specified by disease category. In this study we have shown that, although obese people induce high medical costs during their lives, their lifetime health-care costs are lower than those of healthy-living people but higher than those of smokers. Obesity increases the risk of diseases such as diabetes and coronary heart disease, thereby increasing health-care utilization but decreasing life expectancy. Successful prevention of obesity, in turn, increases life expectancy. Unfortunately, these life-years gained are not lived in full health and come at a price: people suffer from other diseases, which increases health-care costs. Obesity prevention, just like smoking prevention, will not stem the tide of increasing health-care expenditures. The underlying mechanism is that there is a substitution of inexpensive, lethal diseases toward less lethal, and therefore more costly, diseases [9]. As smoking is in particular related to lethal (and relatively inexpensive) diseases, the ratio of cost savings from a reduced incidence of risk factor–related diseases to the medical costs in life-years gained is more favorable for obesity prevention than for smoking prevention. Source:


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