If Americans keep packing on the pounds about half of adults could be obese… (Christopher Furlong / Getty…)
If obesity rates continue to climb in the U.S. as they've done in the past, about half of all men and women could be obese in 20 years, adding an extra 65 million obese adults to the country's population.
The figures are from a study released Thursday in the journal the Lancet (part of a four-part obesity series) that used past trends to predict what the future might look like in the U.S. and the U.K. if people keep gaining weight at that rate. It's not a pretty picture--along with expanding waistlines may come higher disease rates and, in turn, greater healthcare costs.
Using about 20 years of height and weight data (to determine body mass index) from two large national surveys for the U.S. and the U.K., researchers made forecasts. In the U.S., obesity prevalence could go from about 32% in 2007 to 2008 to about 50% for men and from 35% to about 45% to 52% for women. In the U.K., rates could go from 26% for men to 41% to 48%, and from 26% to 35% to 43% for women.
That could translate to more than 8 million cases of diabetes, 500,000-plus cases of cancer, and 6.8 million cases of coronary heart disease in the U.S. When researchers used other, less alarming data from other studies showing a recent plateauing of obesity trends in the country, the predicted numbers were still high: more than 6 million cases of diabetes, 400,000 cases of cancer and 5 million cases of coronary heart disease.
Other conditions such as osteoarthritis and high blood pressure could be affected too, and though not fatal, they could affect people's lifespan.
Increased obesity could also mean massive increases in healthcare costs. Researchers predict a rise in annual medical costs from treating obesity-related illnesses of $66 billion by 2030, representing an overall 2.6% increase in health spending. Money spent just on obesity-related issues could go up 13% to 16% per year over 20 years.
Despite the gloom and doom there's an upside to all this. Let's say people started watching what they ate and maybe exercised a little, enough so that the population overall dropped its body mass index by 1%--that's roughly two pounds for a 200-pound adult. That could prevent 2 million to 2.4 million cases of diabetes, 73,000 to 127,000 cases of cancer and 1.4 million to 1.7 million cases of heart disease and stroke.
Of course, how the obesity epidemic will eventually play out no one really knows--the population's weight changes happen slowly. The authors point out that several factors will have an effect on the numbers, including food prices, technological advances and agricultural policies. "Nevertheless," they wrote, "we hope that our dire predictions will serve to mobilize efforts to reduce obesity so that our predictions do not become reality."