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The obesity epidemic hits all age groups, from toddlers to teens to seniors. For those in that last category that are 65 and older, and on Medicare, there is a new benefit that might make a difference. It's a government program that covers weight-loss counseling. Federal health officials announced this week that for the 13 million beneficiaries who are obese, helping them lose weight is a priority. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Medicare will now pay primary care providers - doctors, nurses and physician assistants - to help plan weight-loss programs. Medicare official Dr. Jyme Schafer:
DR. JYME SCHAFER: Dietary assessment, and intensive behavioral counseling and behavioral therapy to promote sustained weight loss.
NEIGHMOND: For obese patients with a body mass index of 30 or above. Now, Medicare isn't recommending a specific diet or exercise. Schafer says that will be up to the individual doctor to figure out what's best for their patient. What Medicare is recommending is lots of time in counseling.
SCHAFER: We have one face-to-face visit every week for the first month.
NEIGHMOND: Followed by visits twice a month. And if patients lose at least six and a half pounds, Medicare will pay for counseling for an entire year. The weight loss, of course, requires lots of changes, which can be difficult after a lifetime of unhealthy habits - which is why Medicare officials looked very closely at research showing what type of weight-loss intervention was most effective.
Obesity specialist Dr. Kathleen McTygue, at the University of Pittsburgh, did some of that research. She found the most effective programs look a lot like the new Medicare benefit.
DR. KATHLEEN MCTYGUE: Those are ones that meet more often than monthly in the first three months of the program, and they included not just dietary advice, but also physical activity advice and behavioral components. So these are strategies and tools to help people actually incorporate the advice into their daily lives.
NEIGHMOND: For example, be aware. Be very aware. And closely monitor behavior when it comes to food and weight.
MCTYGUE: Write down how much you ate. See how many calories, how many grams of fat there was, and keep track of it over time. Step on the scale once a week and see what you weigh, and keep track of it.
NEIGHMOND: And this type of intense focus helped patients lose weight and keep it off. And like other studies, McTygue found just moderate amounts of weight loss resulted in significant health benefits.
MCTYGUE: Improved glucose tolerance, so they were handling their blood sugar better; improved physical functioning, which is very important in an older population; reduced incidence of diabetes.
NEIGHMOND: All important gains in health, which Medicare officials hope to see among older Americans once this new benefit takes hold. And for younger people, good news, too. Private insurers usually follow Medicare's lead in deciding what benefits to offer.
Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.