Many newspapers have reported that half of UK men could be obese by 2030 if trends continue.
The Guardian said that “governments around the world need to make immediate and dramatic policy changes to reverse a pandemic of obesity”. The Independent reported that by 2030 there will be 26 million people in the UK who are obese – a rise of 73% from the current 15 million. The Daily Mail reported that women will be close behind, “with four in ten similarly overweight” by that year.
These news stories and others are based on a series of papers in The Lancet examining issues surrounding the current worldwide obesity ‘pandemic’. The predictions come from one of these studies, which looked at obesity data from the US and UK, which have had the highest obesity levels in the world over the past 20 years. The researchers predict that if the current trend continues, up to 48% of men and 43% of women in the UK could be obese by 2030, adding an additional £1.9-2 billion per year in medical costs for obesity-related diseases.
Modelling studies like this are valuable for alerting governments and health services to potential future scenarios, allowing them to decide what actions are needed. As the authors point out, these projections are merely extrapolations of currently available data, and uncertainties always exist when making predictions as past trends do not always predict future trends. Despite these limitations, this study and others in The Lancet series highlight how obesity is likely to weigh heavily on the country’s healthcare system and economy. How best to target preventative measures at the population level is clearly an important public health priority.
The researchers say that a recent review of data from 199 countries estimated that almost 1½ billion adults worldwide were overweight in 2008. Among them, 502 million were obese. The researchers also say that another report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development evaluated 11 countries and found that of these the US and UK consistently had the highest prevalence of obesity over the past 20-40 years. The report predicted that this trajectory was likely to continue to 2020.
The paper points out that cardiovascular disease, diabetes and various cancers are the main chronic diseases associated with obesity. Given that the prevalence of these diseases is already rising due to the fact that people are living longer, the extra burden from obesity suggests a substantial cost to the healthcare system. The researchers say that a study estimated that obesity accounts for between 0.7 and 2.8% of a country’s total healthcare costs, and that obese people’s medical costs are 30% higher than those of normal-weight people.
The researchers say that the most recent US data estimated that obese people have 46% higher inpatient costs, 27% more doctor visits and outpatient costs, and 80% greater spending on prescription drugs. By 2030, healthcare costs due to obesity and overweight are projected to account for 16–18% of total US healthcare expenditure.
In the UK, a 2007 report by the Office for Science Foresight Programme projected that the continuing rise in obesity will add £5.5 billion in medical costs to the National Health Service by 2050. In addition to medical costs, society incurs substantial costs from obesity as a result of increased risks of disability and disability pensions, higher work absenteeism and reduced productivity, and increased risk of people retiring early or dying before they reach retirement age.
The researchers say that it is difficult to quantify future healthcare costs resulting from obesity as costs are affected by changing demographics, the economy and the availability of food. However, they say that they used the modelling framework used by the Foresight Programme and applied this to the US and the UK situation to provide updated projections for obesity trends and healthcare expenditure for obesity-related diseases.