Eating Disorders Cost the U.S. $65 Billion a Year. Here’s How You Can Help Change That
A glass jar full of coins, tipped over with coins coming out

There are a myriad eating disorder facts that are slowly—thankfully—starting to enter the public consciousness. We know that eating disorders affect people of all ages, genders, races, sexual orientations and what eating disorders actually are (brain disorders—not vanity issues, choices, or personality traits). But one eating disorder fact that’s still very much under the radar is the financial impact eating disorders have on our society—and the truth may surprise you.

According to a recent report for the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of

Eating Disorders (STRIPE) and the Academy for Eating Disorders (AED) conducted by Deloitte Access Economics, eating disorders cost the United States a staggering $65 billion a year. If that number surprises you, consider where that money is going: three-quarters of that cost (almost $50 billion), is attributed to productivity losses (think: absenteeism or impaired work performance because people are suffering from their illness or caring for ill family members). But the price tag is even higher when experts add in the annual “additional loss of wellbeing” due to eating disorders — these costs aren’t financial, per se, but account for the reduced quality of life and even premature deaths that can result from eating disorders.

“Our report is the first of its kind for the United States, but not for the world,” says S. Bryn Austin, ScD Professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Director of STRIPED, who served on the report’s expert advisory panel. “We followed in the steps of pioneers from Australia’s Butterfly Foundation and from the UK’s Beat Charity, who each commissioned comprehensive national economic reports for their own nations years ago.”

The goal for the STRIPED-AED-Deloitte collaboration was to follow in the footsteps of those other organizations and conduct a rigorous and comprehensive study estimating the economic and social costs of eating disorders in the U.S. One priority for Austin and her collaborators in crafting the report was to engage policymakers in government and healthcare to take action in reducing barriers to care and accessibility.

“Our study represents a critical step toward more fully understanding the social and economic burden of eating disorders in the United States, as well as making it possible to estimate the cost-effectiveness, improved quality of life, and, most importantly, lives to be saved by scaling up effective prevention, early detection, and treatment interventions,” Austin says.

The 92-page report is indeed comprehensive, taking into account data from a combination of nationally representative surveys and modelling studies in the U.S. between October 1, 2018 and September 30, 2019. Among some of the other major findings:

  • Eating disorders resulted in 53,918 emergency room visits, costing $29.3 million
  • Eating disorders resulted in 23,560 inpatient hospitalizations costing $209.7 million
  • Individual and family caregivers providing 6 weeks of informal, unpaid care per year lost a total of $23.5 billion
  • The cost of eating disorders to employers was $16.3 billion
  • The cost of eating disorders to the government was $17.7 billion
  • Society as a whole lost $7.1 billion due to the impact of eating disorders

“Eating disorders are expensive, costing the U.S. economy almost $65 billion each year,” Austin says. “Employers and policymakers should take note: Three-quarters of that cost – or almost $50 billion – is productivity losses. The majority of people affected by eating disorders are in the prime of their working years, which intensifies the impact on the economy. Each year, caregivers provide nearly six weeks of informal, unpaid care for loved ones with an eating disorder.”

These diseases aren’t inevitable, and as Austin and colleague Cynthia Bulik, PhD, FAED, penned in an op-ed for The Hill last year, “eating disorders are treatable and their costs to society and burden on our medical system can be prevented.”

Despite that fact, the CDC currently leads no national, ongoing data collection to monitor eating disorder symptoms or cases despite repeated urging from Congress. Austin and Bulik point out that the CDC’s only meaningful, ongoing, national monitoring of ED symptoms (via the Youth Risk Behavioral Surveillance System) was eliminated in 2015 and in 2017, and the NIH only provided $1 of funded eating disorder research per affected person (compared to approximately $239 per person for Alzheimer’s disease, $109 for autism, and $69 for schizophrenia).

“Eating disorders are much more common than most people realize, and affect people of all genders, race/ethnicities, sexual orientations, body sizes, and ages,” Austin says. “Nearly 30 million Americans or almost 9% of the population will have an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. Eating disorders are among the most deadly mental health conditions, killing over 10,000 Americans every year or one person every 52 minutes. Think about that — every 52 minutes, someone’s sister or brother, child or parent needlessly dies from this preventable and treatable condition.”

While there are no simple solutions to this complex, multilayered, societal issue, Austin and her colleagues implore the CDC to launch systematic, longitudinal, national monitoring of eating disorders to allow for more data that can help eliminate barriers to care. They also believe an NIH plan needs to be implemented to allow for more support and funding for eating disorder researchers. And finally, existing insurance coverage gaps within Medicaid, Medicare, TRICARE, and the Indian Health Service need to be corrected to ensure comprehensive eating disorders treatment coverage.

If you’re interested in learning more about how you can advocate for change, visit this page and click on your state to pull up a few key facts about eating disorders and costs in your area. Here, you’ll also find information that you can download and use with lawmakers or decision makers in your state in meetings about eating disorders treatment access and more.

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