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Obesity - A Global Issue for Insurers

January 15, 2015| By Ross Campbell | Life | English

Over two billion people, or nearly 30% of the world’s population, are overweight or obese. It would be convenient to see this grim statistic as the inevitable by-product of the improved quality of life and economic success being enjoyed by more people in more countries. The fact is, however, obesity is taking a huge toll on society, in economic as well as in health terms.

That’s why we’re preparing to publish a series of blogs in the coming weeks, addressing the outlook on obesity and the global challenge it poses.

The “steep economic toll” of soaring healthcare costs and lost productivity associated with obesity has been estimated by McKinsey at £1.3 trillion globally.1 The World Health Organization estimates that 2.8 million deaths per year are attributable to high Body Mass Index* (BMI), on a base of 59 million deaths annually. Both of these figures are alarming for companies selling insurance products that protect against morbidity and mortality.

The negative effects of obesity on cardiovascular and diabetes risk are well-recognised. It’s a virtue-less circle whereby excess weight leads to diabetes and then to heart disease. It is also widely accepted that weight reduction mitigates the contributory effect of raised lipids and elevated blood pressure to these illnesses.

Despite this knowledge, the unabated rise in obesity shows that clinical interventions and public health policies aimed at helping people sustain weight loss are failing.

While policymakers and scientists debate the best ways to counter obesity, life and health insurers continue to feel its impact, paying out the disability and death claims that result from the growing number of obese policyholders on their books.

Put simply, if left unchecked, obesity increases mortality. As well as the circulatory link, there’s a strong relationship between obesity and different types of cancer. Even surgically-treated obesity is associated with excess mortality.

Obesity also increases morbidity. Arguably, the loss of healthy years of life - defined as those lived free of diabetes, heart disease, cancer or arthritis - is greater than the effect of obesity on the total years of life lost. A BMI of 35 or above cuts more than 18 healthy-life years from people aged 20 to 39. These people will spend a quarter to a third of their remaining lives suffering from diabetes or heart disease.2

Follow our blog for future posts on the complex risk challenges presented by obesity and the questions the condition raises for society. As well as looking into obesity trends around the world, we’ll be discussing policymakers’ approach to controls on sugar as well as underwriting issues around bariatric surgery.

* Body mass index (BMI) is an index of weight-for-height that is commonly used to classify overweight and obesity in adults. The WHO definition is: BMI greater than or equal to 25 is overweight; BMI greater than or equal to 30 is obese.

1. “Overcoming obesity: an initial economic analysis”, McKinsey Global Institute, November 2014.

2. Grover S, et al. “Years of life lost and healthy life-years lost from diabetes and cardiovascular disease in overweight and obese people: a modelling study” The Lancet, published online December 2014,


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