Diabetes expected to double, costs to triple by 2034

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© Brooke Fasani/Corbis

According to estimates from researchers at the University of Chicago, the total number of Americans with diabetes will double in the next 25 years, from the current 23.7 million to some 44.1 million in 2034. During that same time frame, annual costs for treating those patients are expected to soar—nearly tripling from the current $113 billion to some $336 billion.

If these new estimates seem troubling, they are, and what’s more concerning is that they may even be on the conservative side. The figures, published in the December issue of the journal Diabetes Care, are based on obesity levels remaining stable over the next few decades. The authors based their calculations on the belief that obesity levels will plateau, and even decline, by 2033. Yet, if actual prevalence outpaces these estimates, the cases of diabetes, and resulting costs, could be even higher.

These new estimates paint a grim vision of the future, but, the researchers say, a realistic one. Past estimates too indicated a surge in diabetes cases, but often dramatically underestimated just how quickly the problem would grow. Researchers point to figures from 1991, which projected that some 11.6 million Americans would have diabetes by 2030. In fact, that’s fewer than half of the total number of Americans with diabetes today, two decades earlier than researchers had predicted.

Later research similarly undershot the magnitude of the problem. In 1998, researchers estimated there would be 22 million cases of diabetes in the U.S. by 2025. Yet, the University of Chicago team points out, we’ve already passed that mark—and more than 15 years earlier than anticipated.

Going forward, the incredible surge in diabetes cases and correspondingly high medical costs will largely depend on the aging population of Baby Boomers. Currently some 8.2 million diabetes patients are covered by Medicare, costing $45 billion per year. By 2034, researchers estimate that 14.6 billion diabetes patients will be covered by Medicare, and costs will balloon to a staggering $171 billion.

The study, which was originally conducted to help analyze long-term implications of the different proposals for future health care policy, underscores the essential nature of tackling this problem while it is still of relatively manageable size. And how exactly can we stop it from steamrolling into the coming decades? It’s no small feat, the researchers say: as a nation, we need to completely overhaul our eating and exercise habits, and find practical, applicable ways to curb the cost of treating diabetes.