The world has a weight problem, and it’s getting worse. A 2014 study in The Lancet from the University of Washington, analyzing data from 188 countries, found that more than 2 billion people are overweight or obese—some 25% more than in 1980.
This unhealthy surge illustrates a striking new reality. Changing lifestyles, aging populations, advances in technology and increased international travel make it more likely than ever that the things that cause disease—whether unhealthy diets or infection-causing microbes—will not remain isolated to any one country or region.
At the same time, governments, nonprofit agencies and corporations now have more tools than ever before to fight disease and promote wellness. Investors have a role, too. If you want your dollars to have a positive social impact while also pursuing financial returns, you might consider three global trends likely to affect health care and health spending in the years to come
The “Globesity” Problem
With billions of people in the developing world surging into the middle class and adopting Western diets and lifestyles, close to half the world’s population could be overweight or obese by 2030, according to BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research. This is one reason sales of diabetes drugs are expected to jump dramatically over the next couple of years, with projections from research firms Visiongain and GBI Research predicting a $55 billion annual market by 2017. Moreover, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recently cleared several new weight-loss medications for sale, and the market for weight-management medicine could reach $70 billion, says Sarbjit Nahal, head of Thematic Investing at BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research.
Additionally, research firm Euromonitor International projects that the global market for so-called health-and-wellness foods could top $1 trillion by 2020. Naturally healthy food is the most promising category, currently valued at $276 billion globally, Euromonitor says.
Longer Lifespans, at a Price
The good news is that people are living longer today, but that fact also leads to rising health concerns. For example, the number of people diagnosed with cancer annually could rise from 14 million in 2012 to 22 million by 2030, with victims of Alzheimer’s disease more than tripling between 2014 and 2050, according to Alzheimer’s Disease International. And with this surge in chronic diseases will come bigger expenses. For example, the American Heart Association projects that the cost of treating heart disease, the world’s leading cause of death, is expected to rise 22%, to $1 trillion, by 2030.
In response to these trends, innovation in the pharmaceutical industry is accelerating, with new drugs being developed to take aim at specific disease-causing genetic mutations and other precise biological targets, an approach often called “personalized” medicine. In 2006, there were 13 drugs, treatments and diagnostic products in this category, according to the Personalized Medicine Coalition; and by 2014 there were 113.
Preparing for the Next Pandemic
The Ebola outbreak of 2014 was a reminder that, historically, the world has been hit with a major pandemic every 15
to 30 years. “It’s a question of when, not if” the next one will strike, says Nahal. With countries scrambling to get ready,
investors might look at the market for antiviral medicines, which BofA Merrill Lynch Global Research expects to grow
7% annually to $46 billion by 2020. Another opportunity might involve investing in companies that are developing new vaccines, a market that could quadruple by 2025, according to the World Health Organization. Governments and nonprofits are also focused on making vaccines available to children in developing countries, and your investment could support their efforts. For example, one international organization has pioneered “vaccine bonds,” whose proceeds fund efforts to vaccinate children in remote corners of the world.
Biotechnology may play a big role in controlling pandemics, too, helping us better understand how killer bugs such as Ebola emerge, spread and mutate. “We think this represents a major opportunity for the life sciences sector,” says Nahal.
A healthier world will require many things. Innovation and government action are part of it, but investors have a role to play as well. And whether you are concerned most about general health and wellness, the world’s aging population or the potential for a future pandemic, many opportunities could help you put your investments to work in promoting a healthier future.
Anita Srivastava is a Wealth Advisor at Merrill Lynch in Glen Rock, NJ. The information contained in this article is not a solicitation to purchase or sell investments. Any information presented is general in nature and not intended to provide individually tailored investment advice. The strategies and/or investments referenced may not be suitable for all investors as the appropriateness of a particular investment or strategy will depend on an investor's individual circumstances and objectives
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This material should be regarded as general information on healthcare considerations and is not intended to provide specific healthcare advice. If you have further questions regarding your healthcare concersn, please contact a professional in that field.
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 “Global, regional, and national prevalence of overweight and obesity in children and adults during 1980-2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Diesease Study 2013,” 2014
 Forecasting the Future of Cardiovascular Disease in the United States. A Policy Statement From the American Heart Association. http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/123/8/933.full.pdf