Two-thirds of Alaska adults are overweight or obese.
That’s according to the Alaska Obesity Facts Report released Monday by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
For most of us, the statistics shouldn’t come as a surprise. We can quibble with the numbers or the method — for example, Body Mass Index isn’t a perfect measure for healthy weight — but the fact of the matter is that we as a society are heavier than we ought to be. As the report acknowledges, there are lots of causes, and it affects people of all ages, all racial and ethnic backgrounds, and all levels of education and income. Breaking down the numbers, about 30 percent of Alaska adults are obese; 37 percent are overweight; and 32 percent are a healthy weight.
We know being overweight or obese can contribute to other health issues, and if it just affected individuals, we might leave it at that.
But one of the findings in the report highlights how obesity has an impact on all of us: according to the report, it is estimated that Alaska spends $459 million each year on direct health care costs related to adult obesity. That number doesn’t include indirect costs, such as lost productivity, and is expected to increase as the prevalence of obesity rises and health care costs go up. According to the Alaska Division of Public Health, $233 million in Medicaid spending was attributable to obesity in 2015, with that number projected to be $516 million in 2025.
So, that’s the bad news. But the question is, what can we do about it?
Authors of the report note that “meaningful reduction of obesity prevalence will only occur when a set of sustained, comprehensive prevention strategies are implemented by schools, the health care sector, private industry, NGOs, governmental agencies, and individual families. These strategies will need to address policy issues; alter the environment in which we live, play and eat; modify the systems to make the healthy choice the easy choice; and increase the knowledge and change the behaviors of families, children and adults.”
Those changes aren’t going to happen overnight. However, DHSS has mapped out a strategy in its Healthy Alaskans 2020 to reduce adult overweight and obesity through a public education campaign to promote nutrition and physical activity. The targets for 2020 are modest — a reduction to 36 percent from a 2010 baseline of 38.3 percent for overweight, and a reduction to 27 percent from a 2010 baseline of 29.2 percent for obesity.
There are no easy answers to the issue, and with Alaska facing a multi-billion dollar deficit, public health issues may not seem like a priority. But if you look at the costs associated with unhealthy habits, a better approach to wellness would appear to be a good investment. After all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.