Childhood obesity has become a major problem in the United States. Statistics from the American Heart Association, or AHA, show that about one in three American children and teens is overweight or obese. That's nearly three times the rate in 1963.
Obese children are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem, poor body images, and depression. Obesity at a young age is also linked to earlier death rates in adulthood. And obesity is causing children to be affected by health problems that normally aren't seen until adulthood. These include high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol. And there's more.
A new study reports that obesity-related symptoms may affect a child's ability to learn.
The study appeared in the October 2012 issue of Pediatrics. Antonio Convit, M.D., and his team at NYU Langone School of Medicine did the research. Dr. Convit is Director of the Brain, Obesity and Diabetes Lab at the university. As reported in US News and World Report online, the study involved 110 teens. It compared teens with metabolic syndrome to those without it.
What is metabolic syndrome?
Obesity is causing more children to develop a group of symptoms called "metabolic syndrome." People who have three or more of these conditions together may be considered to have metabolic syndrome:
- Excess body fat around the waist
- High blood pressure
- An inability of the body to use sugar properly
- Too much bad cholesterol in the blood
- A high level of fat in the blood
The experts at MayoClinic.com say metabolic syndrome raises the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
The NYU study further indicated that kids with metabolic syndrome may also perform more poorly on mental tests.
A difference in thinking skills
The teens involved in the study were similar in age, ethnic background, and grade in school. They were given 17 tests in areas such as reading, writing, and math. Those with metabolic syndrome tested, on average, 10 percent lower than the healthier teens.
A physical difference in the brain
The researchers also did MRI scans of the brains of the teens. They found a surprising result among the teens with metabolic syndrome. A part of the brain involved in learning and memory was 10 percent smaller. The smaller size was not in the abnormal range,but it did indicate that their brains weren't working as well as they could.
What can be done?
Dr. Convit said he believes doctors should be doing more than simply checking blood pressure when children visit them.
"We should be looking at a wide range of health measures, and looking out for how these kids' brains are working," he said.
The best way for children to reduce their risk of metabolic syndrome is to lose weight. Exercising and eating healthier will reduce the risk. Since parents are so influential in their children's exercise and eating habits, it is hoped that this study may serve as their wake-up call. Parents can make lifestyle changes to ensure their kids perform at their full potential.
Lona Sandon, MEd, RD, LD, is an assistant professor at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. She says the study supports the need to find ways to prevent childhood obesity. Children's doctors need to encourage parents to help children adopt good diet and activity patterns. This can help them stay lean and physically fit.
She said being obese isn't just about looks or self-esteem. It's not just about heart disease that can develop in 20 or 30 years. "We're talking about cognitive ability impairment that can affect school performance pretty immediately," said Sandon. "It's a here-and-now problem that needs to be tackled head on."
Your Health Coach,
"Watching Your Back,"
Dr. Ross Coccimiglio
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