Louisiana now claims the dubious title of unhealthiest state in the nation. The United Health Foundation’s most recent annual health rankings place us dead last, and we have bumped Mississippi from the bottom. Unfortunately, we are likely to stay in this spot unless we address the significant toll that chronic disease is taking on our state’s citizens, workforce and budget.

There are an array of alarming new statistics on diabetes and obesity for our population. The International Diabetes Federation notes that roughly 415 million people around the world (about 1 in 11 people) have diabetes. Data also indicate that the United States has the highest prevalence of diabetes among developed nations; about 11 percent of our citizens have the disease.

Further, the rate for diabetes in Louisiana is greater than the rest of the country — in some parishes it is up to 50 percent higher. When one considers the complications of diabetes — blindness, kidney disease, amputations and heart disease, to name a few — it is not hard to understand why the cost to our country for diabetes and its related expenses is upwards of $320 billion a year.

In 2015, it was reported that the cost of caring for diabetes in Louisiana was $5.4 billion. Combine that with the costs of obesity, hypertension and dementia, and the total cost to our citizens, including lost productivity and wages, was $10.6 billion. These expenses are projected to increase over the next two decades, but even at the current rate, these costs are unsustainable.

Chronic diseases, like diabetes and obesity, are linked. Where you observe obesity in a population, years later you inevitably see an increase in cases of diabetes. From Louisiana, across Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee and into Kentucky and West Virginia — this region is referred to as the “obesity and diabetes belt.” Louisiana’s high rates of obesity do not bode well for future trends. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we are eating ourselves into a diabetes epidemic.

Research into these diseases provides a crucial piece of the puzzle to reversing these devastating trends. We must invest in biomedical research if we are to overcome the immense challenge these diseases pose to our state’s future. Biomedical research is an investment that can improve the state’s bottom line by bettering health care, preventing and treating chronic disease, developing effective drugs and treatments, and improving our nutrition.

LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center is at the forefront of biomedical research. During the past 27 years, our work has transformed the way America eats, exercises and ages. Our world-renowned diabetes and obesity research has changed the way doctors around the globe approach and treat these devastating diseases. We are heavily involved in nutritional studies for our military to help in keeping soldiers combat-ready and to enhance performance and maintain resilience to stress.

We have been involved in the testing of every approved obesity drug on the market today, as well as key diabetes medications. We are involved in the largest Type 2 diabetes study ever done by the National Institutes of Health, our nation’s primary funder of biomedical research. We are also NIH’s partner in one of the largest diabetes prevention clinical trials to date.

Together with our sister LSU campuses and in collaboration with other biomedical institutions in the state, we have succeeded in attracting more than $20 million from the NIH to form a research network around the state (the Louisiana Clinical and Translational Science Center) that represents a unified, comprehensive approach to the “prevention, care and research of chronic diseases in the underserved population.”

Pennington Biomedical has the research capacity to help our state address this growing and costly health epidemic. We are also collaborative partners in the Baton Rouge Health District’s plans for a diabetes and obesity center/health hub that will integrate diabetes care across the continuum for patients, including increased access to cutting-edge research opportunities.

With the support of Louisiana’s citizens and lawmakers, and in collaboration with Louisiana’s other biomedical centers, we are poised and ready to tackle this challenge. As evidenced by recent grants and awards to our researchers (more than $35 million in 2014-2015), one investment often leads to another, bolstering Louisiana’s scientific talent on a national scale and putting home grown ideas into action for our health.

Biomedical research is an investment that delivers over time. By supporting much-needed chronic disease research now, we are investing in the long-term health and future of our great state and the nation.

Dr. William Cefalu is executive director of LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center. See the International Diabetes Federation’s report at www.diabetesatlas.org.