The University Record, December 4, 2000

Study examines economic impact of extra pounds

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

Extra pounds can be expensive to middle-aged women, according to U-M researchers analyzing data on more than 7,000 men and women in their 50s and 60s.

The findings, presented Nov. 19 at the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, suggest that the economic cost of obesity is high and that it continues as women age.

Analyzing data from the U-M Health and Retirement Study, funded by the National Institute on Aging, the researchers at the Institute for Social Research (ISR) investigated labor market and wealth consequences for obese and non-obese women.

They found that in 1992, when the study began, the individual net worth of a moderately to severely obese woman was about 40 percent less than that of her normal-weight counterpart after statistically controlling for health, marital status and a number of other demographic factors.

In 1998, a moderately to severely obese woman between the ages of 57 and 67 reported an individual net worth of about 60 percent less than her non-obese peer, an average difference of about $135,670, again controlling for important demographic and health factors.

The effects of obesity were generally smaller for men and not statistically significant.

“Much of the previous work on the economic effects of obesity has focused on young adults who are just beginning their careers,” said Nancy H. Fultz, ISR research investigator, who presented the study in Washington, D.C., with Stephanie J. Fonda, ISR research fellow; Laura M. Wheeler, ISR research associate; and Linda A. Wray, ISR research investigator and assistant professor of medical education.

In the study, one of the first to examine the economic effects of obesity on mature men and women, the researchers examined a wide range of demographic, physical and mental health characteristics to see whether these factors explained the economic differences between obese and non-obese women.

Although these factors were important variables in understanding net worth, they did not explain all the differences between the net worth of obese and non-obese women. “That an effect of obesity on net worth remains even when we consider these other factors is consistent with the notion that obesity is economically burdensome for women. This may be due to cultural norms of attractiveness, which stigmatize obese women in a variety of ways,” the researchers conclude.

Average Adjusted Individual Net Worth (excluding home equity in 1998)

Normal to overweight$145,017$162,381
Mildly obese$165,646$108,754
Moderately to severely obese$86,865$72,463
Normal to overweight$146,038$184,200
Mildly obese$165,648$118,158
Moderately to severely obese$201,314$127,106

Source: University of Michigan Health & Retirement Study