Study finds childhood obesity occurring at greater frequency, with more severity and at younger ages

Obesity in childhood and early adolescence can be linked to poor mental health and are often precursors to chronic diseases in adulthood, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease. A new study published in Pediatrics and led by Solveig A. Cunningham, PhD, found that, despite numerous public health efforts to promote healthy behaviors and to improve living environments, the rates of new cases of obesity in elementary school are higher and are occurring earlier in childhood than they were even a decade earlier. The multidisciplinary Emory team includes co-senior authors Michael R. Kramer, PhD, K.M. Venkat Narayan, MD, and postdoctoral fellow Rebecca Jones, PhD. 

The researchers analyzed at what ages children are most likely to develop obesity and which children are at highest risk. They compared data on children entering kindergarten in 1998 and in 2010 and followed them through fifth grade. The data are nationally representative, so findings can be generalized to children growing up in the United States.

Major findings from the study include:

  • Approximately 40 percent of today’s high school students and young adults had experienced obesity or could be categorized as overweight before leaving primary school.
  • Children born in the 2000s experienced rates of obesity at higher levels and at younger ages than children 12 years earlier, despite public health campaigns and interventions aimed at preventing obesity.
  • Non-Black Hispanic kindergartners had a 29 percent higher incidence of developing obesity by fifth grade compared to non-Black Hispanic kindergartners 12 years earlier.
  • Risk of developing obesity in primary school among the most economically disadvantaged groups increased by 15 percent.

“These worrying data indicate that the childhood obesity epidemic in the United States continues to grow and get more serious. Our knowledge about effective interventions to fight this also seems limited,” says Narayan. “We urgently need an aggressive national strategy for interdisciplinary research and public health to stem the tide of childhood obesity and its consequences in the U.S. and worldwide.”

Cunningham adds, “For decades, we have seen the number of children with obesity increasing, in spite of extensive efforts from many parents and policy makers to improve children’s nutrition, physical activity and living environments. Have these efforts worked? Is obesity finally receding? Our findings indicate that no, obesity must continue to be a public health priority.” 

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