If you’re overweight or obese, losing a few pounds may save you some serious cash. A new study has shown that weight loss at any age resulted in significant financial perks, with people around age 50 saving the most—an average of $ 36,278(!) over the course of their lifetimes.
The new research, published in Obesity, is the first to take into account not only the medical costs associated with obesity and its related diseases, but also losses in productivity at work that could be attributed to weight. This helps paint a more complete picture of the real price tag of extra pounds, according to the authors.
“People often think of obesity as an insurance issue, and they know that expensive health care problems are associated with it,” says lead author says Bruce Y. Lee, MD, executive director of the Global Obesity Prevention Center at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “But they rarely think about the full magnitude of its societal and workplace costs.”
To find these numbers, Dr. Lee and his colleagues developed a computer model to represent the U.S. adult population, and estimated lifetime health effects for people who were obese, overweight, or healthy weight at ages 20 through 80. The model simulated the health status of these three groups year by year, and tracked medical costs (to the insurer or health-care facility), productivity losses, and sick time they would likely sustain as a result of their weight.
They found that, at every age between 20 and 80, going from one weight category to another resulted in significant cost differences. A 20-year-old who goes from obese to overweight, for example, would save an average of $ 17,655 over his or her lifetime. If that same person went from obese to a healthy weight, those savings would grow to about $ 28,020.
Middle-age adults had even more to gain: The model suggested that an obese 40-year-old could save between $ 18,000 and $ 32,000 over their lifetime by losing enough to be simply overweight or a healthy weight. Cost savings peaked at age 50, with an average total savings of more than $ 36,000.
The cost gap between being obese versus overweight narrowed as people aged, so that people between 50 and 80 benefited much more from moving to the healthy weight category, rather than simply moving from obese to overweight. “This emphasizes the importance of weight loss as people get older,” the study authors wrote in their paper, “for both individuals with obesity and individuals with overweight.”
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Dr. Lee says it was a bit surprising that these cost savings remained significant throughout every decade of a person’s life. “Someone might think that if they’re 80 years old and they’ve lived their entire life without losing weight, then maybe it’s not worth trying at that point,” he says. “Our study suggests that if you really want to focus on reducing costs, then it is actually still important.”
Dr. Lee points out that the productivity losses in the study were based on median wage—and that if a person makes a higher-than-average salary, they’re likely to lose even more because of obesity-related problems. “You’re essentially forfeiting potential salary, you’re going to the hospital and the doctor’s office, you’re getting too sick to work, or your life is getting cut short,” he says.
Dr. Lee hopes the research helps employers realize the importance of prioritizing their workers’ health and wellbeing. He also hopes it serves as an incentive for people who know they need to lose weight but haven’t been motivated to do so for their health alone. “Everyone is interested in trying to save money and maximize what they can do with their salary,” he says, “and this study suggests one way they can do that.”