Academic journal article The Future of Children

The Consequences of Childhood Overweight and Obesity

Academic journal article The Future of Children

The Consequences of Childhood Overweight and Obesity

Article excerpt

Summary

Researchers are only gradually becoming aware of the gravity of the risk that overweight and obesity pose for children's health. In this article Stephen Daniels documents the heavy toll that the obesity epidemic is taking on the health of the nation's children. He discusses both the immediate risks associated with childhood obesity and the longer-term risk that obese children and adolescents will become obese adults and suffer other health problems as a result.

Daniels notes that many obesity-related health conditions once thought applicable only to adults are now being seen in children and with increasing frequency. Examples include high blood pressure, early symptoms of hardening of the arteries, type 2 diabetes, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, polycystic ovary disorder, and disordered breathing during sleep.

He systematically surveys the body's systems, showing how obesity in adulthood can damage each and how childhood obesity exacerbates the damage. He explains that obesity can harm the cardiovascular system and that being overweight during childhood can accelerate the development of heart disease. The processes that lead to a heart attack or stroke start in childhood and often take decades to progress to the point of overt disease. Obesity in childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood may accelerate these processes. Daniels shows how much the same generalization applies to other obesity-related disorders--metabolic, digestive, respiratory, skeletal, and psychosocial--that are appearing in children either for the first time or with greater severity or prevalence.

Daniels notes that the possibility has even been raised that the increasing prevalence and severity of childhood obesity may reverse the modern era's steady increase in life expectancy, with today's youth on average living less healthy and ultimately shorter lives than their parents--the first such reversal in lifespan in modern history. Such a possibility, he concludes, makes obesity in children an issue of utmost public health concern.

Health professionals have long known that being overweight carries many serious health risks for adults. Medical researchers have also investigated how obesity affects the health of children and adolescents, but work in this area has advanced more slowly. The epidemic of overweight and obesity in children and adolescents, however, has intensified the pace of research. In the face of this new epidemic, researchers are raising the question of whether children face the same set of health risks as adults--or whether their risks are unique. The answer, to a certain extent, is both. Many health conditions once thought applicable only to adults are now being seen in children and with increasing frequency. Even if the conditions do not appear as symptoms until adulthood, they may appear earlier than usual in a person's lifetime if the person had weight problems in childhood. Further, children are also more vulnerable to a unique set of obesity-related health problems because their bodies are growing and developing.

In this article, I will discuss both the adverse outcomes associated with childhood obesity and the risk that obese children and adolescents will become obese adults and be exposed to other health problems. The obesity epidemic is taking a heavy toll on the nation's children. Some obesity-related conditions are having an immediate adverse effect on their health; others will have more chronic long-term effects. Because of overweight and obesity, today's young people may, on average, live less healthy and ultimately shorter lives than their parents. The epidemic is an issue of urgent public health concern.

Adverse Health Outcomes in Children

As the prevalence and severity of childhood obesity increase, concern about adverse health outcomes in childhood and adolescence is rising. Table 1 shows the prevalence in children and adolescents of various health problems associated with obesity. …

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