Childhood obesity is the most important epidemiological issue facing the United States Health System. About nine million children ages six and older are obese in the U.S. (Institute of Medicine, 2004). It affects both boys and girls of all ages, races, and ethnic groups. Overall, obesity is on the rise, causes numerous health consequences, and costs the United States millions of dollars every year. Incentive programs, such as those used in Mexico for other illnesses affecting youth, is an approach that we should immediately implement.
Childhood Obesity is on the rise. According to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, the childhood obesity rate has more than doubled for preschool children and adolescents, and more than tripled for elementary school children (Institute of Medicine, 2004). In 2007 alone, only the state of Colorado had a childhood obesity rate less than twenty percent (Center for Disease Control (CDC), 2008). This rise stems from an increase in daily caloric intake and a decrease in physical exercise. As indicated in a recent report by the US Department of Health, forty-six percent of vegetable intake among children consists of fried potatoes (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2009). Overall, only twenty-one percent of children and adolescents eat the recommended servings of fruit and vegetables (CDC, 2004) and about one third do not participate in recommended levels of moderate or vigorous activity (Lin and Morrison, 2002).
Childhood obesity causes numerous health consequences. These include and are not limited to coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, arthritis, cancer, hypertension, dislipidemia, stroke, liver and gallbladder disease, sleep apnea, respiratory problems, osteoarthritis, cancer and gynecological problems (CDC, 2008). In addition, obese children have a seventy percent chance of becoming obese adults, with the percentage increasing to eighty percent if one or more parents are obese (Torgan, 2002). This high percentage is alarming as obese adults are at a high risk for limb amputation from type II diabetes, kidney failure requiring dialysis, and premature death (Ludwig, 2007).
Childhood obesity costs the United States Millions of dollars every year. The Journal of Adolescence reports that the Unites States spends $127 million per year in health care costs of obese children (Webb, 2004). As mentioned previously, obese children become obese adults, thus it is important to note that the US spends a total of $117 billion on the healthcare of obese persons (nh.gov, 2009). In 2000 alone, $76 billion dollars was spent on healthcare associated with physical inactivity. Studies have shown that if ten percent of adults began a regular walking program, approximately $5.6 billion in heart disease could be saved and a sustained ten percent weight loss will reduce a person’s lifetime medical costs by about $5,300 (CDC, 2008). Without an effective intervention, the cost of obesity is expected to rise, not only from actual medical expenses but also from diminished worker productivity (Webb, 2004).
To combat childhood obesity the United States should immediately implement incentive programs. Mexico currently implements one such program known as Oportunindades, which provides incentives in the form of cash transfers for the use of preventative health services, nutrition counseling and supplementary foods and school attendance. The program expenditures total about $1 billion and has had a 12 percent lower incidence rate of illness in children (Case 9, 2009).
This type of incentive program is a feasible option for the United States. Cash transfers can be made to low-income families who enroll their children in physical activities (sports, local gyms, community centers, boys and girls club, etc.), to families whose children actively participate in school-led gym classes, and to families whose children enroll in a certified nutrition class. A larger cash transfer should be made to families who participate in nutritional education with their children and to those who reduce their overall BMI by certain percentages. As studies have proved that keeping weight off for a consistent amount of time increases the health status of individuals, these transfers would continue for a max of five years for every year the total BMI stays within the healthy range for age/height.
Low-income families will receive these cash transfers for nutritional education and enrollment in physical activity as they do not have the financial resources to enroll without incentive; however, childhood obesity trends show that while low-income families have a higher rate of obesity, middle and upper income families also experience obesity in children. To combat this, monetary incentives should also be offered to families whose overall BMI is reduced and sustained. A program of this nature is most likely to cost the United States more than the $1 billion expenditure of Mexico’s program. However, it is not likely that it will have the same economic burden of $117 billion that the current obesity epidemic has on the United States Healthcare system.
Overall, childhood obesity is significant problem that, unless addressed, will continue to grow exponentially, cost billions of dollars in healthcare and to lead to numerous health consequences. It affects children of all class, genders, and ethnicities. This epidemic is one that can be addressed with the right program and education. It is also one that should be actively pursued in the present, as obesity is often a sociological pattern passed down in families; hence, if we do not correct these patterns now, we will only have more to correct in the future.
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