We all know the number of American kids who are overweight or obese is at a scandalous rate (childhood obesity rates doubled between 1988 and 2006). But most of us might assume that the really bad health consequences of being very overweight will come later, in adulthood, when numbers for the big killers—heart disease, stroke, and diabetes—peak. And while that is true, there’s now new research showing a much bigger effect of excess weight on kids’ health when they are young.
The new study, which appeared in Academic Pediatrics, was led by Neal Halfon, MD, MPH, director of the UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families, and Communities, in Los Angeles. The research looked at over 43,000 kids ages 10 to 17 around the country and asked about kids’ health issues like asthma, diabetes, and pain, as well as developmental and behavioral issues.
The findings are sobering: “Common health conditions associated with obesity include ADHD, learning disability, poor dental health, asthma, allergies, and headaches,” wrote the study authors. The research, which surveyed parents, also found more ear infections and problems with bones, joints, and muscles in heavier kids.
Overall, say Dr. Halfon and his co-authors, kids who are obese have nearly twice the risk of having three physical, mental, or developmental problems compared to normal-weight children. Overweight kids had a 1.3 times higher risk.
One of the more shocking statistics was the finding that 11 percent of obese kids experienced some sort of restriction on how active they could be—like going to school or playing with other kids, says Halfon. “Obese children are limited in what they can do,” he says. “This is a measure of disability or impairment due to obesity. It’s the same kind of measure that would be used to determine if a child with heart disease or cerebral palsy was impaired in some way.”
Beyond physical problems, obese kids in the study also had significantly higher rates of problems at school, ADHD, depression, learning disability, and developmental delays. They were also likelier to repeat a grade. “Obesity may be associated with stigmatization, victimization, and isolation,” Halfon notes. “If you are obese, have ADHD, and difficulty reading social cues, and also cannot participate in PE because you have asthma as well, then you become ‘different’ and have a greater chance of being isolated.”
The research found something particularly interesting for diabetes: Kids who were 15 to 17 and obese were much likelier to be diabetic as they aged into adolescence. This, say the authors, suggests that the path to adult-onset diabetes “is well underway beginning in adolescence.” Type 2 diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death and is on the rise, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control.
We should all be worried about these findings, since the implications for so many kids with these issues is huge. “While there is some evidence that the rate of childhood obesity is slowing, the fact that close to 30 percent of children are obese or overweight, and that they are burdened with all kinds of conditions that can influence their long-term health, education, and life trajectories is of obvious concern,” says Halfon. And not just because of future healthcare costs. “These kids,” he stresses, “are at risk for not fulfilling their potential.”
Are you surprised to hear that obese kids are experiencing so many health problems in childhood? What do you think our best options are for lowering the rate of childhood obesity?
Lorie A. Parch is a Los Angeles-based writer specializing in heath and lifestyle topics.