February 22, 2019
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Youth obesity to cost Maine $1.2 billion, UMaine study finds

Metro Creative | BDN
Metro Creative | BDN

Obesity among children and teens in Maine could cost more than $1 billion over the next 20 years, according to a new University of Maine study.

Today, just under 8 percent of Maine’s children and adolescents are obese. But as those youths grow into adults, that proportion likely will rise to more than 25 percent, according to the study by Todd Gabe, an economics professor at UMaine.

Obese children are much more likely than their healthy-weight peers to grow into obese adults, the study found. The medical costs from obesity increase as people age.

“We’ve all heard about the nationwide obesity epidemic, and these figures bring the problem — especially the challenge facing our children as they become adults — closer to home,” Gabe said.

The medical costs of obesity — including inpatient and outpatient treatment and prescription drugs — for today’s school-age children in Maine will reach $1.2 billion by 2032, Gabe estimates.

That price tag reflects a snapshot of obesity among the current crop of school-age kids in Maine. It doesn’t take into account obesity among future classes of children entering their school-age years or adults.

The estimate also doesn’t include indirect costs, such as lost productivity at work when those children become adults, a factor some studies have shown to be an even bigger drag on the economy than the direct medical costs of obesity, Gabe said.

“If anything, these cost numbers are conservative,” he said.

Gabe’s study was funded in part through a partnership among the Maine Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance; the Maine Department of Education; and UMaine’s College of Education and Human Development.

He used statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and data including about 2,000 school-age children in Maine compiled by physical education teachers in 18 schools across the state as part of ongoing research in the UMaine College of Education and Human Development.

Physical education teachers across the state measured the fitness of students ages 10-14.

Among all age groups in Maine, the medical costs of obesity totaled more than $452 million last year, with most of the expense due to adult obesity, according to the study.

Just under 28 percent of adults in Maine are considered obese. A September study by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation predicted that more than half of all adults in the state will be obese by 2030 if Mainers continue packing on the pounds at current rates.

Adults are identified as obese if their body mass index, a body fat calculation based on individual’s weight and height, totals 30 or higher. Obesity has been linked to numerous health problems in adults, such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, asthma and arthritis.

Because children’s body composition depends on gender and varies as they grow, obesity among kids is defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control as a body mass index above the 95th percentile for children among the same age and sex.

Other studies have shown that childhood obesity is associated with diabetes, gallbladder disease, sleep apnea and mental illness.

Gabe also researched ways Maine could potentially put a dent in future medical costs from obesity. The state could save $100 million over 20 years by slashing the percentage of Maine children who are currently obese by 34 percent, he found. Maine could also net those savings by reducing by 12 percent the likelihood that teens who are at a healthy weight today become obese as adults.

A number of approaches aimed at reducing childhood obesity could help to reduce the burden on Maine’s economy, Gabe said.

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