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Childhood obesity in Alaska will boost future medical costs, study says

Yereth Rosen

Childhood obesity in Alaska will create significant additional medical costs in the next two decades, according to a new study by the University of Alaska's Institute for Social and Economic Research.

If current patterns hold -- with 15.2 percent of Alaska's children now classified as obese, and 20 percent of non-obese Alaska children becoming obese after they reach adulthood -- the extra medical costs over the next 20 years will amount to $624 million in today's dollars, said the study by Mouhcine Guettabi, an assistant economics professor at UAA.

That is a conservative estimate, considering only the direct medical costs related to obesity, Guettabi said. Along with direct medical impacts like diabetes, heart disease and stroke, there are numerous indirect costs of obesity -- like restricted academic participation and diminished workplace productivity -- that are more difficult to quantify, he said.

The study, conducted for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, appears to be the first to evaluate the medical costs of obesity specifically for children in Alaska, Guettabi said.

The study considers future obesity-related costs for today's young Alaskans, ages 2 to 19.

While obesity-related medical expenses are relatively low for the youngest Alaskans, they rise with age, Guettabi said. The problem is that obese youngsters are highly likely to become obese adults, he said -- about 90 percent, according to national statistics.

Added to that are the non-obese children who grow into obese adults, and the replication expected to occur under current trends, he said. "This pattern repeats itself every 10 years," he said.

Currently, 25.7 percent of Alaska adults are obese; combined obesity-related expenses for Alaska adults and children in 2012 are estimated at $226 million, according to the study.

Preventing children from becoming obese as adults will bring about the most medical-cost savings, Guettabi said.

A 1 percent decrease in the transition of non-obese adolescents into obese adults, however, would create $14.3 million in medical-costs savings over 20 years, according to the study. A 1 percent decrease in the transition of obese adolescents into obese adults would save $2.9 million in medical costs over 20 years, according to the study.

Lifestyle changes are most effective when they are made early, Guettabi said.

"If you tweak behavior in an early stage, the results are significant," he said.


By YERETH ROSEN
yereth@alaskadispatch.com