It's familiar news by now that America's obesity epidemic is both dangerous and costly. Obesity significantly increases the risk of many diseases, including heart disease and diabetes, and is associated with at least 112,000 deaths a year. The economic impact is equally startling: Obese patients add an estimated $75 billion a year to the nation's medical bill.
What has been less discussed and studied is the personal financial toll that obesity has on the 60 million Americans who are seriously overweight. In recent years, researchers have been exploring that issue, and their findings raise a provocative question: Could obesity be as dangerous to individuals' wealth as to their health? The preliminary evidence suggests that the answer is yes.
Some economists estimate that obese people could be spending tens of thousands of extra dollars a year because of their weight.
Recent studies have found that obese people spend more on out-of-pocket medical costs than thinner people. They also have lower incomes, are less likely to hold managerial jobs and are more likely to miss work. They are less likely to be married and more likely to get divorced. When they marry, their spouses generally earn less than non-obese people. They inherit less wealth from their parents, who are more likely to be overweight themselves.
Beyond these research findings, experts say that obese people spend more on diets and on items such as larger-size clothes or extra-sturdy furniture. A few airlines have begun requiring severely obese passengers to buy two tickets.
"There's no single smoking gun to explain it," said economist Roland Sturm of Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif. "But it's clear that for obese people, especially the morbidly obese, their weight can affect how well they do financially."
Experts say it's difficult to sort out the relationship between obesity and wealth. Obese people are poorer than the non-obese, but no one can say exactly why. Does being poor cause people to become obese, or does being obese keep people poor? What does seem clear is that the economic situation faced by seriously overweight people can make it harder for them to make the exercise, diet and lifestyle changes that promote weight loss. More healthful foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, generally cost more than less nutritious alternatives such as fast-food cheeseburgers. And the costs of weight-loss programs, personal trainers and gym memberships can be prohibitive.
The number of Americans who are considered obese has doubled in the past 25 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and now accounts for more than 30 percent of the population. The number of morbidly obese people (generally defined as 100 pounds or more overweight) has grown to 9 million.
Last year, Jay Zagorsky, an economist at Ohio State University, released a study that followed 2,000 teens for two decades, tracking their weight and wealth. By the time the teens reached middle age (39 years old), there was a sharp disparity in their finances. Normal-weight people had accumulated nearly twice as much wealth as those who were obese (about one-third of the original group).
The differences can be explained, in part, because obese people earn less money on the job and inherit less money from their parents, Zagorsky said. "It may be a small difference each year," he said, "but it adds up over time into something much bigger."
He has found that people who significantly decrease their body weight may see a corresponding rise in their personal wealth.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.