This editorial will appear in Monday’s print edition.
From the no-duh files comes the latest study on Americans’ waistlines, which concludes that the country is getting fatter.
The Trust for America’s Health report, while largely a confirmation of what any sighted person already knows, also provides a timely reminder of a big factor driving up the cost of overhauling the nation’s health care system.
First, the facts: As late as 1991, no state had an obesity rate greater than 20 percent. Today, every state but Colorado does. Washington ranks 28th, with one in four residents considered obese.
The Baby Boomer generation has a higher rate of obesity compared with previous generations, foretelling a coming crisis for Medicare. The report concluded that the first wave of boomers will mean an increase of 5.2 percent to 16.3 percent in states’ populations of obese Medicare patients.
Worse yet, America’s youth are in sad shape, portending a crushing burden for the health care system during their lifetimes. The rates of obese and overweight children ages 10 to 17 eclipses the rate of adult obesity in most states. (In Washington, nearly 30 percent of kids fall into that category).
Obese kids, by and large, become obese adults. And obese adults suffer diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease among other persistent conditions at rates far greater than their trimmer friends. Treating such chronic diseases is the black hole of health care costs.
Simply put, the nation’s expanding waistlines have the potential to bankrupt us. It’s no coincidence that we lead the world in both obesity rates and health care costs. America’s health care system is, to a large degree, collapsing under the weight of Americans.
Obesity is a symptom of our health care woes as much as a cause. It is indicative of a bigger tendency of Americans to not practice the best kind of medicine – prevention. Health care reforms would not be nearly so expensive if we all took better care of ourselves.
Sure, other forces drive the hyperinflation of medical costs, among them gross bureaucratic inefficiencies and over-delivery of services. But by and large, the U.S. health care system costs a lot because Americans need to use it a lot.
The answer is not so simple as telling Americans to put down the Cheetos and get on the treadmill. The nation must find ways to promote and reward active lifestyles and healthy eating. And we must continue to investigate the contributing factors – mental health, genetics, chemicals in the environment – that seem to be at play in ways medicine doesn’t completely understand.
The quicker we start treating obesity as the universal threat to our public health and economic security that it is, the sooner we’ll see progress.