(USA TODAY) Over a lifetime, the medical costs associated with childhood obesity total about $19,000 per child compared with those for a child of normal weight, a new analysis shows.
The costs are about $12,900 per person for children of normal weight who become overweight or obese in adulthood, according to the analysis by researchers at the Duke Global Health Institute and Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School in Singapore and published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
The $19,000 estimate reflects direct medical costs such as doctors' visits and medication but not indirect costs such as absenteeism and lost productivity into adulthood. The cost is "large, although perhaps not as large as some people would have guessed," says lead author Eric Finkelstein, a health economist.
"In the case of childhood obesity, the real costs do not occur until decades later when these kids get adult health problems at a greater rate," he says.
Obesity is a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers and a wide range of other diseases. About one in three adults and nearly one in five children in the United States are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The estimates highlight "the financial consequences of inaction and the potential medical savings from obesity prevention efforts that successfully reduce or delay obesity onset," Finkelstein says.
The study notes that when multiplied by the number of all obese 10-year-olds in the U.S. today, the lifetime medical costs for this age alone reaches roughly $14 billion. That's nearly twice the Department of Health and Human Services' $7.8-billion budget for the Head Start program in fiscal year 2012, the analysis says.
To determine the estimates, researchers evaluated and updated existing research on lifetime costs of childhood obesity, focusing on six published studies.
The per-child estimates are valuable when looking at cost effectiveness, says John Cawley, co-director of the Institute on Health Economics, Health Behaviors and Disparities at Cornell University. He was not involved in the latest study.
If a new school-based intervention program is developed to decrease the probability of childhood obesity by a certain percentage, "you can use the numbers in the study to figure out what kind of savings that applies to the health care system," Cawley says.
The $19,000 estimate is more than the roughly $16,930 the College Board says one year of college costs at a public four-year institution, including tuition, fees, books, room and board and other expenses.