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New report charts the social costs of childhood obesity

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Increasing numbers of children and young people are living with obesity, and that brings both long and short-term risks. Prevention of childhood obesity is crucially important in avoiding lifelong consequences for the health and working life of the individual, as well as for society as a whole.

A new research report has calculated the costs of obesity and overweight among children and young people, seen from a lifetime perspective. The costs are mainly comprised of lost productivity in adulthood, as a result of high levels of sick leave.

Report on obesity in children

The Swedish Institute for Health Economics (IHE) presents the results in its report:

The economic burden of overweight and obesity in Swedish children – a lifetime perspective.

The report was produced on the instructions of the national Swelife initiative Ending Childhood Obesity, which aims to prevent obesity and overweight among children aged six and under in Sweden. In so doing, it can contribute to reducing the incidence of poor mental health, and the development of type 2 diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease.

High levels of sick leave

In the report, IHE addresses the costs to society and includes costs to the public sector and lost productivity. According to the report, the excess cost to society of a six-year-old with obesity over a lifetime, compared to a six-year-old of normal weight, amounts to SEK 430,000 for a girl and SEK 250,000 for a boy. In both cases, more than 75 per cent of the costs are lost productivity in adulthood as a result of increased sickness absence.

The individual and society bear the cost 

Katarna Steen Carlsson
Katarina Steen Carlsson

“The costs of obesity amongst children that we have been able to include in our analyses are not immediately apparent and they are not primarily in the healthcare system. It is the individual and society who bear the cost in the long-term,” explains Katarina Steen Carlsson, chief scientific officer at IHE.

In an annual cohort of 120,000 six-year-olds in Sweden, there are more than 5,000 obese children and 14,000 overweight children. The report calculates that the total excess socioeconomic costs for these children over their lifetime is SEK 1.8 billion for those with obesity and SEK 2.1 billion for those who are overweight.

Jovanna Dahlgren

“Over the last decade, we see a clearer picture of how a multifaceted disease such as obesity can be more effectively prevented. A more holistic approach is needed. Moreover, we are currently designing a more personalised treatment through the identification of different aetiologies and success factors. By making the costs of obesity for individuals and society visible, we are convinced that decision-makers will have better tools for their decisions on priorities,” adds Jovanna Dahlgren, Professor and Paediatrician at the University of Gothenburg and Sahlgrenska University Hospital.

Complex development

The growth of childhood obesity in Sweden and the world is complex and responsibility can never be placed solely on the individual. The major cause of the increase in overweight and obesity in all age groups over the last 30 years is the societal changes that have occurred – an increasing number of places have access to food around the clock, it is easier to get hold of cheap but nutrient-poor and calorie-rich food, sedentary lifestyles are increasingly prevalent and there is a general lack of physical activity, to name a few examples.

maria bjerstam
Maria Bjerstam

“During the project, the Ending Childhood Obesity Initiative has raised the importance of a system-based working method, in dialogue with municipalities, regions, national organisations, authorities and politicians. To have an impact on the trend of increasing numbers becoming heavier early in life, we need to work together at various levels,” asserts Maria Bjerstam, innovation manager at Innovation Skåne.

More to read

For children with obesity, the National Board of Health and Welfare have recently drawn-up national guidelines about treatments and other support for individuals with obesity:
National guidelines for obesity care – National Board of Health and Welfare (in Swedish)

The Healthy-Risk-Sick model is used to describe the individual’s health journey. Society should strive to promote and support the maintenance of health for its citizens at all times. Opportunities to prevent or mitigate illness are improved by early diagnosis.
Healthy-Risk-Sick model

About Ending Childhood Obesity

Ending Childhood Obesity (ECHO) is a national initiative, financed by Swelife, which aims to prevent overweight and obesity among children under six in Sweden, and thereby contribute to reducing poor mental health, the development of type 2 diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular illness.

Alongside the individual, healthcare, academia and business, ECHO is working towards a vision of zero childhood obesity by the start of school in 2030. This is happening in a broad collaboration with around 20 formal partners and a network of stakeholders.