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Diabetes costing Americans more than any other disease

A man with diabetes takes a blood sugar level test.
BSIP | UIG | Getty Images
A man with diabetes takes a blood sugar level test.

About half of all health-care spending in the United States goes to treat a small group of diseases, according to new research. And diabetes is leading the pack, far outpacing other conditions in total dollars spent.

Researchers from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation tracked the costs associated with 155 diseases for 18 years. Of that 155, a mere 20 were found responsible for over half of all medical expenditures.

Diabetes is the most expensive condition in terms of total dollars spent nationwide, costing $101 billion in diagnosis and treatment in 2013. Ischemic heart disease, the second-largest source of expenses, cost a total of $88 billion that year. The survey shows that diabetes-related costs have grown 36-times faster than those for ischemic heart disease, which kills more people than any other condition.

There are a variety of factors that drove diabetes spending up over that period, said lead author Joseph Dieleman, in an interview with CNBC. First, older people are more susceptible to the disease, and America's population is aging. It is also more prevalent overall, due to dietary and lifestyle changes, and health professionals are treating the condition more aggressively than they were in the past.

Dieleman told CNBC that the study is an attempt to map out the specific conditions that are driving spending, and identify the areas where efficiency or quality of service can be improved.

"So often the total amount money we spend on health care gets thrown around, and our sense was there is not as much information on what that money is actually spent on," said Dieleman, an assistant professor at the University of Washington's IHME.

Dieleman also said people are often struck by the sorts of conditions included in the list, as many people tend to guess that much-discussed maladies, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease, are the vacuuming up the greatest sums. People are less likely to consider skin problems, injuries from falls, or pregnancy and post-partum care, as being big expenses.

But "it is really some of the more mundane conditions that are driving spending," he said.

For example, low back and neck pain together are the third biggest source of medical spending in the U.S. And unlike the diabetes or heart disease, which tend to affect Americans in their late-60s or older, neck and back pain often afflicts working adults. This also has economic implications, since the condition is likely affecting worker productivity.

The researchers published their study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It included spending from government and commercial insurance plans, as well as out-of-pocket expenses.

Americans on the whole spent about $2.4 trillion on health care in 2013, according to the study. Women older than age 85 spent the largest amount — about $31,000. Men around the same age spent $24,000.

Here are the top 10 diseases and their costs: