(Bloomberg) -- Diabetes or pre-diabetic conditions will strike half of all adult Americans by the end of the decade unless people drop extra weight, said UnitedHealth Group Inc., the largest U.S. health insurer by sales.
The disease will cost the nation almost $3.4 trillion, with more than 60 percent paid by the U.S. government, in the 10 years through 2020, according to a study released today by the Minnetonka-based insurer. The number of Americans afflicted with high blood sugar will rise 44 percent to 135 million in 2020, from 93.8 million in 2010, researchers said.
Diabetes is growing as the U.S. population skews older and fatter, said Simon Stevens, the executive vice president who leads the company's Center for Health Reform, an effort to analyze how medical care should be delivered and priced.
About 12 percent of the estimated 235 million adult Americans are diabetic, compared with 28 percent who are pre-diabetic, a condition marked by elevated blood sugar after fasting, according to the study. Pre-diabetics can lower the odds of getting diabetes by losing weight, he said.
"There is nothing inevitable" about the increase in diabetes, Stevens said in a telephone interview. "Even quite modest changes, like losing 5 percent of body weight, have the potential of producing decreases. If we don't take obesity seriously, we risk our children living shorter lives than we parents have lived."
This is an "epidemic that is larger than breast cancer and HIV together," said Deneen Vojta, a physician and senior vice president at the UnitedHealth center. "Yet it doesn't feel like an epidemic in this country because of the real under-awareness of the situation."
The UnitedHealth study estimates that 15 percent of 260 adult Americans will suffer from diabetes in 2020 while 37 percent will be pre-diabetic.
UnitedHealth is starting a program, with YMCA partners, to help overweight people exercise more, eat better and be more aware of body metrics related to diabetes. Six of the first graduating class of seven adults managed to lose 7 pounds each, on average, and are still engaged in the program, said Tyler Mason, a UnitedHealth spokesman, in an e-mail.
"This will be the role of health plans in the future: to help people stay healthy and not just supporting them to get the care they need when they are sick," Stevens said.
Copyright 2010 Bloomberg.