Published on November 10, 2023, 12:59 am
Twenty years ago, studies warned about the rising childhood obesity rates and its potential impact on life expectancy. Sadly, those predictions have come true. Obesity rates have skyrocketed in both children and adults, leading to a catastrophic rise in chronic diseases that affect not only life expectancy but also the cost of care and overall quality of life.
However, there is a glimmer of hope in the recent health news headlines. Weight-loss drugs are offering some promising results. Studies suggest that these medications can lead people to buy less food, save airlines millions of dollars, and even benefit clothing stocks. Specifically, incretin medications like Mounjaro, Wegovy, and Ozempic are gaining popularity for their ability to help people lower blood sugar levels and shed excess weight. These drugs stimulate insulin release to decrease blood sugar levels and slow down food passage through the gut.
The rise in popularity of incretin medications for weight loss could potentially reverse the decades-long trend of increasing obesity and diabetes rates. In fact, Wall Street has already recognized the economic implications of this shift. But what does it mean for our health?
At the recent Obesity Week conference in Dallas, drug manufacturers presented nine industry-sponsored studies that predicted significant economic and healthcare transformations due to these medications. For example, Novo Nordisk estimates that if 100,000 people were to lose 15 percent of their body weight (the average weight loss achieved with its Wegovy drug), it would result in an $85 million reduction in obesity-related condition costs like hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and sleep apnea over five years.
Jason Brett from Novo Nordisk emphasizes that using weight loss as a therapeutic strategy can improve health and ultimately reduce healthcare costs associated with obesity. Critics argue that these manufacturer-sponsored studies overlook the high cost of these medications themselves and raise concerns about potential side effects such as malnutrition, nausea, and facial aging.
Despite these concerns, we cannot ignore the significant impact of obesity on people’s health and quality of life. According to the CDC, 42 percent of adults and 20 percent of children and adolescents in the U.S. have obesity as measured by BMI. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine even warns that by 2030, 50 percent of U.S. adults could have obesity.
Obesity is a major contributor to eight out of the ten leading causes of death in the U.S., as well as an increased risk for mental health disorders. Furthermore, obese individuals are often excluded from clinical trials, creating potential gaps in safety and efficacy when it comes to new drugs developed for this population.
Incretin medications not only help patients lose weight and control diabetes; they have also shown promise in reducing cardiovascular risk in patients with type 2 diabetes. Early studies even suggest that these medications may reduce alcohol intake and protect brain health in diabetes patients.
While incretin medications are not a magic bullet and come with their share of side effects, they represent a significant advancement in combating obesity. Given that obesity is projected to overtake tobacco as the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., addressing this epidemic is crucial.
These new weight-loss drugs may also have a transformative effect on societal norms surrounding food consumption and exercise habits. Our modern food environment is rich in calorie-dense options, coupled with a sedentary lifestyle. These medications help reduce food cravings, leading patients to consume less overall. Interestingly, studies have shown that individuals consuming these medications tend to eat fewer snacks per day and opt for healthier choices such as fruits and vegetables instead of ultra-processed foods.
It’s difficult to predict how a national decrease in weight could affect our collective attitudes towards exercise, smoking cessation, alcohol restriction, and other healthy habits. However, as people lose weight and overcome related chronic conditions, we may witness an increase in healthy behaviors that could ultimately negate the need for these weight-loss drugs altogether.
Perhaps, in another twenty years, we will be able to revisit the dire predictions made two decades ago. With advancements in weight loss drugs and a shift towards healthier habits, it’s possible that the next generation will see an unprecedented increase in life expectancy and overall health. Who knows, headlines may one day proclaim: “Due to weight loss drugs, people now live longer and healthier lives.”
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