- The Washington Times - Friday, July 31, 2009

OPINION/ANALYSIS:

As we head into the end of the week, health care has been a major issue this week as evidenced simply by the amount of media coverage and campaigning.

Taking a lofty view, it’s increasingly evident that the health care system is broken and that it needs to be addressed. As with so many issues, there are a few viewpoints on what approach to take, what policies to instill, and how to pay for it. While the devil may be in the details, there is little doubt that we face an uphill battle on several fronts when it comes to reining in health care costs. However, as Ben Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

The type of prevention that I am talking about is the measures that can be taken to reduce the pressure on health care costs. Per Health WorldNet, the top four disease-related causes of death are cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.

An estimated 23.6 million American adults and children have diabetes, which equates to nearly 8 percent of the domestic population. Of those 23.6 million people, almost one-quarter of them are not aware they have the disease. Per data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report released last October, the rate of new cases of Type 2 diabetes has nearly doubled in the United States in the past decade. New diagnoses of Type 2 diabetes rose from 4.8 per 1,000 people from 1995 to 1997 to 9.1 per 1,000 people from 2005 to 2007. These new cases mirror the increase in obesity rates, and obesity is a leading cause of the blood sugar disease, according to the CDC.

The same report also states that the entire adult population of the United States is projected to be overweight or obese by 2048 should current trends persist. At the same time, the cost of drugs to treat Type 2 diabetes has nearly doubled between 2001 and 2007 per the Oct. 27, 2008 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.

Let’s put that into some perspective. A Wall Street Journal/Associated Press report says obesity-related conditions have risen from 6.5 percent of all medical spending in 1998 to 9.1 percent of all medical spending. According to a study published by Health Affairs, overall obesity-related health spending reached $147 billion, double what it was nearly a decade ago. The New York Times says, “Obese Americans spend about 42 percent more on health care than normal-weight Americans, according to a new study based on 2006 figures.”

The higher spending has been attributed to the cost of treating diabetes, heart disease and other ailments far more common for the overweight. Most of the excess spending is for prescription drugs needed to manage obesity-related conditions.

The long and short of it is something that health economists have been saying for some time - obesity is a driving force behind the rise in health spending.

To make sure we are all using the same vernacular, the lay definition of obesity is “abnormal accumulation of body fat, usually 20 percent or more over an individual’s ideal body weight.” A more technical definition involves the body mass index (BMI), which is a method used for estimating body fat to determine whether a person is overweight or obese. An adult with a BMI of 25 or higher is considered overweight while an adult with BMI of 30 or higher is considered obese.

Since the moniker of this column is “Your Money, Your Way” let’s discuss a few ways to use your money today in order to help reduce spending later. As noted by Richard Klein, chief of the National Center for Health Statistics’Health Promotion Statistics Branch, physical activity and fitness regimens confer many benefits. They can decrease the risk of obesity and chronic diseases, including coronary vascular disease, diabetes and osteoporosis, and lead to better control of body weight, blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol, among other items.

Simple ways and small dollars to get going on such an initiative means buying a pair of sneakers and other exercise apparel to go walking, jogging, running, biking, strength training or some other form of exercise or physical activity. Whether you choose to exercise outside, inside your home or at a gym, odds are you will only spend a few hundred dollars on average, feel better, and potentially look better.

If exercise is not your thing, there are other ways to attack the issue and there is no shortage of help.

According to Marketdata Enterprises, the weight management industry had revenue of approximately $55 billion in 2006 in the U.S. alone. Prevention won’t solve all of the health care cost problems, but as Chris Mattice, co-founder of HealthWell, points out, “If people exercise, focus on nutrition and get quality sleep each night, odds are they will see a reduction in health care costs.”

The second way to help our financial selves is to consider that this is a long-term trend and such trends take time to play out, let alone reverse direction. With that in mind, there are several ways to play a trend that we could call “the fattening of the population.”

There are a number of companies that stand to “benefit” from this trend, most notably snack food and fast-food companies as well as candy companies and the like. Examples include Hershey’s, McDonald’s, Yum Brands, Kraft, Cadbury and Jack in the Box, among others. In terms of the anti-trend, those embracing an active lifestyle, companies such as Under Armour, Hanes Brands, Nike, Life Time Fitness, Health Fitness Corp., Dick’s Sporting Goods and others are potential beneficiaries. To be fair, there are likely other players including pharmaceutical companies and others.

No pun intended, but obesity is a large problem that if left unchecked will get even bigger and will continue to drive our health care costs higher. Why not invest in yourself and get a health-related dividend?

Chris Versace is the director of research at Think 20/20 LLC, an independent research and corporate access firm based in Reston. He can be reached at cversace@washingtontimes .com. At the time of publication, Mr. Versace had no positions in companies mentioned. However, positions can change.

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