A growing problem Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2009

An epidemic that lowers workplace productivity, causes life-threatening illnesses and contributes to skyrocketing increases in health care costs is impacting Americans at alarming rates. That epidemic is obesity, and it is one of the most serious global health crises. Nowhere is it more evident than in the U.S., which weighs in as the world’s most obese country.

To learn more about the crisis, its impact on business and some remedies, Smart Business spoke to Barry Arbuckle, Ph.D., president and CEO of the MemorialCare Medical Centers and immediate past chair of the California Hospital Association.

How serious is the problem?

In the U.S., infants up to 6 months old are 60 percent more likely to be overweight than those born two decades ago. Nearly one of three children is overweight and one in five is obese. Adult obesity rates continue to climb with up to three-fourths of American adults aged 20 to 74 overweight or obese — up dramatically from 1980 when the national average was 15 percent. The average U.S. adult man weighs 191 pounds and the average women weighs 164. Rates are even higher among Hispanic, African-American and American Indian populations.

If the trends continue, researchers fear nearly every American will be overweight within four decades, even those who made it well into adulthood without a weight issue. Research shows how obesity takes years off your life, may be as dangerous as smoking and reverses decreases in heart disease. About 300,000 die each year from complications related to their extra weight. This could be the first generation with a lower life span and more critical illnesses than their parents — an alarming fact considering the tremendous progress we’ve made in curbing and curtailing diseases and lengthening life spans.

Why has the problem escalated so quickly?

Our fast-food culture and our sedentary lifestyles are major culprits. The World Health Organization cites a shift in diet toward increased consumption of energy-dense, nutrient-poor food high in saturated fats and sugar, plus an unbalanced intake of salt combined with a decrease in physical activity as key contributors.

What is the impact on business?

Extra pounds increase costs and account for billions of dollars in California’s annual medical expenditures. This costs the state and its businesses nearly $25 billion a year in lost productivity, higher insurance premiums and medical costs. Employees who are overweight have higher rates of absenteeism and chronic disease, lower productivity and increased use of health resources, adding to the cost of doing business. It is estimated that health care costs directly related to added weight will double each decade, reaching $957 billion in 2030. That’s one of every six health care dollars spent in the U.S.

Without significant attention and strategies to reverse these trends, our children’s generation will be at high risk for cancers, heart disease, rising cholesterol, higher blood pressure, diabetes, strokes, mental disorders, gallstones, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, orthopedic-related illness, gastrointestinal diseases, and injuries and other problems that relate to excess pounds. American businesses will suffer from an unhealthy, less productive work force. We must all collaborate to ensure real change.

What can the health care industry do?

Many hospitals like our MemorialCare Medical Centers offer educational programs, seminars, self-help groups, speakers and services to the community and employers. Common treatments range from dietary, behavior, drug and combined therapies to physical activities and surgery for the severely obese who have not responded to other treatments.

How can employers help reverse the trend?

Despite the skyrocketing growth and increased presence in the workplace, obesity is a preventable condition. Just a 5 percent increase in physical activity by Californians over five years could save businesses and the state $6 billion a year. A 10 percent increase could save $13 billion. Employers should collaborate with hospitals, physicians, public health, school nurses and disease-related organizations in the fields of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and others to develop effective prevention and treatment

No- to low-cost solutions are available that can help reverse the trends of inactivity and overeating. They include classes on how to adjust a diet to reduce calorie intake; enjoyable employee walking programs and desk exercises that become part of the workplace routine; a move from unhealthy to nutritious foods in the cafeteria and vending machines; healthy family meal preparation lessons; employee and family support groups; programs that reward those losing weight and lowering blood pressure and other health risks; and more.

Obesity should not be seen as a problem that solely impacts how a person looks and is perceived. Employers need to recognize and encourage prevention and treatment of obesity as a disease with deadly risks and complications. While there may be no instant panacea, we can make significant strides by getting our employees and their families moving and eating the right foods in the right amounts to keep their bodies healthy.

Barry Arbuckle, Ph.D., is president and CEO of MemorialCare Medical Centers (www.memorialcare.org) and past chair of the California Hospital Association. Reach him at arbuckle@memorialcare.org or (562) 933-9708. MemorialCare Medical Centers include Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills, Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Anaheim Memorial Medical Center, Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, Miller Children’s Hospital in Long Beach and Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in San Clemente.