Will obesity affect life expectancy?

According to Roland Sturm, Ph.D., from RAND Health in Santa Monica, Calif., “Obesity is a chronic condition that affects morbidity, making people sick for a long period of time. Being obese is like aging 20 years.” Sturm believes we will not see the effects of obesity on life expectancy for another 20 years.

However, medical advances are keeping Americans alive for longer than ever before. Therefore, while life expectancy may continue to rise in the United States, an individual’s quality of life may suffer.

Being fat costs how much?

According to Innovus Research, a company that tracks health-care costs, obesity is costing US employers about $70 billion a year. These costs are attributed to lost workdays, lost productivity, visits to the doctor, and expensive medical treatments. The three most expensive conditions with regard to what insurers pay out in medical claims include heart disease, disorders of the gastrointestinal tract, and high blood pressure. When the $30 billion spent on diet programs, weight loss drugs, devices and foods are included in this equation, overweight is costing America over $100 billion per year.

In a 1998 study, Anne M. Wolf, R.D., from the University of Virginia, and Graham A. Colditz, M.D., from Harvard Medical School, reported the cost of lost productivity related to obesity among Americans between 17 and 64 was $3.93 billion. A breakdown of the most recent data from 1994 showed:

Workdays lost related to obesity — $39.3 million
Physician office visits related to obesity — $62.7 million
Restricted activity days related to obesity — $239 million
Bed-days related to obesity — $89.5 million

Equal Health Insurance For All?

Insurance companies are not allowed to discriminate against extremely fat or thin people. Therefore, insurance premiums are the same regardless of weight. However, both insurance companies and businesses struggle with the fact that both over and under weight clients, on average, cost more than those who are in the normal range.

According to Joel Nitzkin, M.D., a Health Policy Consultant in New Orleans, “Obesity stands on its own as a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, and all contribute to decreased employee productivity and increased health insurance claims.”

Bank One is a large company that has studied the costs of obesity. The health care costs for one Bank One employee who is not considered obese are about $4,500 over three years. It jumps to about $6,800 every three years for overweight or obese employees.

According to the World Health Organization, (WHO) about 9.4 percent of total health care cost in America is due to physical inactivity. They figured that a $1 investment in physical activity leads to $3.2 saved in medical care .

In their study, Wolf and Dr. Colditz found the annual costs of direct health care and lost productivity resulting from obesity and its consequences were about 5.7 percent of total US health care expenditures, or $52 billion, in 1995.

Worksite Wellness

Workplace wellness programs, when utilized, can help employees improve their health. One study by the WHO found workplace physical activity programs can reduce short-term sick leave by 6 percent to 32 percent, reduce health care costs by 20 percent to 55 percent and increase productivity up to 52 percent.

However, these programs are often thought of as perks for employees, and are given little more than lip service. Increased demands on employee productivity and efficiency leave these programs underutilized, if not ignored.

Comprehensive workplace wellness plans often include stress management workshops, on-site fitness centers, and weight loss programs. However, the weight loss component is frequently outsourced to experienced companies like Weight Watchers.

Businesses that have been recognized for their worksite wellness initiatives include Merrill Lynch and Verizon Wireless. Donald Gemson, M.D., Medical Director at Merrill Lynch, is responsible for helping the company’s 70,000 employees remain healthy. As part of this effort, the company has offered nutrition makeovers at corporate cafeterias, an on-site nutritionist, fitness centers and medical clinics that perform cholesterol screenings and body-fat analysis.

Despite these efforts, Dr. Gemson noticed more and more employees were overweight and obese. He is now creating an on-site obesity clinic in the New York office that would offer weight loss drugs to employees who met the criteria. Dr. Gemson says about 5 percent to 10 percent of the company’s 8,000 New York City employees could benefit from this program.

A pilot weight loss plan is being offered to 35 Verizon Wireless employees in conjunction with Roche Laboratories. The company already has an on-site gym, and offers employees a small financial incentive for staying healthy. The new program targets employees who are experiencing health problems associated with obesity. This is a delicate issue for employers who must be sensitive to the feelings of overweight employees, and not discriminate against them.

Some businesses decide to outsource their worksite wellness programs, and there are many companies happy to provide this service. With regard to weight loss, Weight Watchers has brought their program into the workplace for years. Millions of people have successfully lost weight on this realistic, balanced meal plan.

Miavita, an Internet company, offers employers a new service to deal with weight loss in a healthy way. For $25 per employee per year, Miavita provides tips on eating healthy foods, and guidelines for exercise on a personalized Web page. For an additional fee, employees can have online access to a registered dietitian. Barry Sears, author of the best-selling diet book The Zone, is preparing to launch a “Zone at Work” program that companies can offer employees at the worksite.

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