Obesity-related health problems cost the United States $168 billion every year, amounting to 17 percent of all medical bills, according to a study conducted by researchers from Cornell and Lehigh Universities and released by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
An earlier study, released in 2009, concluded that obesity-related health problems cost the United States $147 billion per year, amounting to 9 percent of total medical costs.
The new study used information from a federal survey of U.S. citizens and their medical providers that is considered the nation’s most complete health cost-related database. Operating under the belief that prior studies had underestimated obesity-related costs, the researchers attempted to correct for some common sources of error.
Most studies on the costs of obesity have relied on self-reports of participant weight, which is widely known to produce under-estimates. For the new study, researchers used statistical adjustments to correct self-reported figures upward to better reflect reality.
Prior studies have also typically excluded many medical costs that could not be proven to be obesity-related, even if weight was a likely contributing factor.
“It’s hard to find conditions that aren’t worsened or made more expensive by obesity,” said John Cawley, a researcher in the new study.
To try and include more of these health conditions in their analysis, Cawley and colleagues included all medical costs of any overweight participant who appeared to have a trend of obesity in their family.
Health policy researcher Kenneth Thorpe of Emory University, who was not involved in the study, said he thought the newer figures were probably more accurate than those from earlier studies.
“I think these are the most recent and perhaps statistically sound estimates that have come out to date,” Thorpe said.