Older Americans have enjoyed health improvements in recent decades thanks to numerous medical advances. However, if obesity continues rising at its current rate—without other changes in health behaviors or medical technology—those gains could be negated by 2020, a study predicts.

From 2000 to 2020, the proportion of healthcare costs associated with treating overweight or obese people would increase from 14% to 21% for 50- to 69-year-old men and from 13% to 20% for women in the same age group, according to a RAND Corporation study published in the March-April edition of Health Affairs (2004; 23 [2], 199–205).

Overweight people are paying more for health care, too. Annual average costs for moderately obese people, with a body mass index (BMI) between 30 and 35, were about 20%–30% higher than costs for people of normal weight, according to the analysis. A BMI above 35 is associated with an increase in healthcare spending of more than 60% annually, while a BMI of at least 40 doubles expenditures.

The study also forecasts that the number of people aged 50–69 with disabilities (defined as having limited ability to care for themselves or perform routine tasks) will increase by 18% for men and 22% for women. Among moderately obese Americans in this age group, 11% report having difficulties walking across a room or getting dressed. That number nearly doubles for those with a BMI above 35, the report says.

“Even though disability rates among the oldest Americans have continued to decline, there is no reason to be complacent about obesity,” said Roland Sturm, senior economist and lead author of the study, in a RAND Corporation press release.