Getting Generation X Healthier

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- With health care costs growing 2.5% faster than GDP per annum and 16% of GDP devoted to health care, Generation X may be saddled with a higher health care burden than previous generations, especially as the baby boomers begin to consume expensive health interventions.

At the current pace, the Medicare fund for hospital care may be insolvent by 2017, according to government actuaries estimates. And insurance companies, such as WellPoint ( WLP), Humana ( HUM) and UnitedHealth ( UNH), may pass along higher premiums to our generation to pay for the costly care incurred by our parents.

With this in mind, Generation X should pay close attention to the health care reform debate. So far two versions of a health care bill have emerged, one from a House committee and the other from a Senate committee. Both bills propose to make it mandatory for businesses to give their employees health care or pay into a government fund, but they differ on payroll thresholds and require different amounts of coverage.

But the one issue not frequently discussed in the debate is how to lower health care costs by improving lifestyle choices, especially those related to obesity and smoking. This is the debate our generation should be having.

Over the past decade, obesity-related health spending has doubled, reaching $147 billion, says a recent study by the Health Affairs journal. In 2006, the Congressional Budget Office reported that approximately two-thirds of Americans were obese or overweight.

Obese citizens incurred 37% higher health care costs (about $1,000 per person) than those of normal weight. If obesity continues to rise, by the year 2020, 20% of all health care spending will be for obesity-related diseases and conditions.

Also, while smoking rates have declined in the U.S., about one-fifth of the population still smokes; 42% of the average smoker's health care costs are related to their smoking, says a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So what should be done? The federal and state government could launch a national campaign about the health risks of being obese or overweight similar to the anti-smoking campaigns.

Interviewees could include those living with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. There could be diabetes warnings (like the glycemic index), for example, on the side of McDonald's ( MCD) and Burger King ( BKC) fries. No longer is it acceptable to be obese or overweight in this country if we can do something to change this.

Or perhaps we could also listen to what our mothers used to tell us. To reduce future back injuries, ladies should wear flats, not heels. To lose weight, get off the couch and go to the gym. Limit alcohol consumption. Eat a more balanced, healthy diet. This summer, for example, lay off the hot dogs at ball games and company picnics, because the high sodium content can increase your blood pressure.

As the health care debate continues, we can all play a part to decrease our inevitable health care costs. We have a responsibility to improve our lifestyle choices for our generation and generations to come. By investing in good health, we can accelerate economic growth in the coming decades.

-- Written by Alexandra Linden in New York.

Alexandra Linden is a recent graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School and Columbia Business School. She is interested in the intersection of business and government. She has also recently interned at the White House in business outreach and worked at Goldman Sachs in government affairs and equities trading.

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