Long known to dramatically increase the risk of certain chronic health conditions later in life, childhood obesity also has serious, immediate health consequences, according to a study conducted by researchers from the University of California-Los Angeles and published in the journal Academic Pediatrics.
The researchers found that overweight children are 30 percent more likely than children of normal weight to suffer from three or more medical, mental or developmental problems; obese children are 200 percent more likely.
“The findings should serve as a wake-up call to physicians, parents and teachers, who should be better informed of the risk for other health conditions associated with childhood obesity,” lead author Neal Halfon said.
Researchers have been aware for some time that even as childhood obesity rates have risen over the last 20 years, so have other childhood chronic conditions such as asthma, learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Although prior studies have looked for a connection between these phenomena, they have either had a small sample size or focused on a single condition or part of the country. In the current study, researchers constructed comprehensive health profiles of nearly 43,300 children between the ages of 10 and 17 across the United States. All children were participants in the 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health. 15 percent had body mass indexes (BMIs) between the 85th and 95th percentiles (classified as overweight), while 16 percent had BMIs above the 95th percentile (classified as obese).
The researchers compared weight with 21 separate indicators of general health, specific health disorders and psychosocial functioning. The results were adjusted to account for differences in sociodemographic factors.
A suite of health problems
The researchers found that obese children were significantly more likely than normal weight children to suffer from poorer health, more disability, ADHD, allergies, asthma; bone, joint and muscle problems, conduct disorders, depression, developmental delays, ear infections, emotional and behavioral problems, headaches, learning disabilities, and missed school days, grade repetition and other school problems.
“This study paints a comprehensive picture of childhood obesity,” Halfon said, “and we were surprised to see just how many conditions were associated with childhood obesity.”
Further studies will be needed to confirm the current research, Halfon and colleagues noted. In particular, longitudinal studies will help confirm whether obesity causes the associated health conditions, or whether there is some other factor that explains the connection.
“Obesity might be causing the co-morbidity, or perhaps the co-morbidity is causing obesity – or both might be caused by some other unmeasured third factor,” Halfon said. “For example, exposure to toxic stress might change the neuroregulatory processes that affect impulse control seen in ADHD, as well as leptin sensitivity, which can contribute to weight gain.”
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