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How Much Does Childhood Obesity Cost Over a Child's Lifetime?

The lifetime medical cost of an obese child compared to a child who maintains a normal weight through adulthood ranges from $16,310 to $19,350, suggests a study published online today in the journal Pediatrics.

The study authors set out to quantify the economic value of childhood-obesity-prevention efforts by documenting the lifetime medical costs of an obese child compared to a child of normal weight. They scanned PubMed and Web of Science for U.S.-based articles with estimates of incremental lifetime medical costs, finding six eligible studies to draw upon.

Two of those six studies accounted for weight gain through adulthood for normal-weight children, while the other four did not. Based on the two that did, the authors determined that the lifetime direct medical cost of a 10-year-old obese child compared to a 10-year-old child of normal weight ranged from $12,660 to $19,630. For the four that didn't, the medical cost for obese children jumped from $16,310 to $39,080.

Well and Good

Four of the six studies placed the medical cost of childhood obesity between $16,310 and $19,630, with three of the four all in the $19,000 range. Therefore, the authors determined $19,000 to be the approximate lifetime medical cost of childhood obesity.

Multiplying that $19,000 figure by the number of obese 10-year-olds today results in a direct medical cost of approximately $14 billion for this age alone. As the authors note, this is nearly double the Department of Health and Human Services' $7.8-billion budget for the Head Start program in fiscal year 2012.

Even when applying the most conservative estimate, $12,660, the total direct medical cost for obese 10-year-olds comes in at $9.4 billion. The authors note that this is more than 62 times the 2012-13 funding for the national Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.

Since previous research has found a majority of overweight and obese youth maintain the same weight status throughout adulthood, the authors make the case for expanding youth-obesity prevention to all children. 

"There is the potential to improve weight management among all youth that could last well into adulthood," they suggest.

Though childhood-obesity rates in the United States have more or less stabilized over the past decade, per a report released last year by the Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, roughly 17 percent of U.S. children between the ages of 2 and 19 are considered obese, while 31.7 percent are considered either overweight or obese. In terms of sheer numbers, that loosely translates to 12 million obese children and adolescents and 23 million who could be classified as overweight or obese.

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