About 70 to 80 percent of health-care costs in the United States stem from chronic conditions that are largely preventable or manageable, such as hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. Those three conditions alone cost U.S. employers nearly $500 billion in lost productivity, according to the Milken Institute, a nonprofit economic think tank. But effective prevention strategies have proved elusive; simply educating people about the benefits of eating better and exercising has had little effect.
Aetna and other health-care companies, such as Humana, hope the features that have made games so addictive will motivate people to adopt healthier lives. A crop of startups are integrating social networking and behavioral economics with games toward that end. Although Aetna declined to provide estimates, even a modest change for the better could have a big impact on an insurer's bottom line if the results were sufficiently widespread.