If current weight trends continue 50% of the U.S. population will be obese with body mass index values of 30 or higher by 2030, researchers project.

Y. Claire Wang, MD, of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City, and colleagues, examined data collected from the National Health and Nutrition Examination (NHANES) between 1988 and 2008 and estimated that if trends continue, by that date, “there will be as many as 65 million more obese people in the United States compared with 2010.”

Much of obesity’s health burden would occur in men and women in their 40s and 50s, in whom obesity prevalence is expected to reach 60%, the researchers warned. Additionally, 28 million of the projected 65 million additional obese people are expected to be aged 60 years or older — the group that already accounts for the highest medical spending in the United States, and one of the fastest growing age groups.

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As a result, data indicate that American health care providers will need to provide care for 6 to 8.5 million more diabetes patients and can expect to witness between 5.7 to 7.3 million more cases of heart disease and stroke; 490,000 to 670,000 additional cases of cancer; and 26 to 55 million quality-adjusted life years lost.

If these predictions are accurate, medical expenditures are expected to increase $48 to $66 billion annually, before lost productivity and other costs associated with a generally sicker population are taken into account, the researchers noted.

“We hope that our dire predictions will serve to mobilize efforts to reduce obesity so that our predictions do not become reality,” the researchers wrote.

In efforts to determine weight-loss benefits, the researchers calculated the projected effects of a 1% decrease in population-wide BMI, an approximate 2 lb weight-loss per adult. “This change might sound small, but such a scenario would have a substantial effect on consequent health burdens,” the researchers wrote.

That model predicted that such a change could prevent more than 2 million cases of diabetes, about 1.5 million cardiovascular disease diagnoses and approximately 100,000 cancers in the United States.

Study limitations include estimates based on extrapolations from current data, which may not be accurate if current obesity trends do not continue, the researchers added. “How the continuing trend will respond to the changing world (eg, food prices, agriculture policy or technological innovation) in the next five to 10 years can only be examined with hindsight,” the researchers wrote.

Wang YC et al. Lancet. 2011;378:815-825.