Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Early Adult Obesity and U.S. Women's Lifetime Childbearing Experiences

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Early Adult Obesity and U.S. Women's Lifetime Childbearing Experiences

Article excerpt

Literature from multiple disciplines suggests that women who are obese during early adulthood may accumulate social and physiological impediments to childbearing across their reproductive lives. This led the authors to investigate whether obese young women have different lifetime childbearing experiences than leaner peers by analyzing data from 1,658 female participants in the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. Study sample members were nulliparous women ages 20-25 in 1982. The authors examined their childbearing experiences between 1982 and 2006 and found that young women who were obese at baseline had higher odds of remaining childless and increased odds of underachieving fertility intentions than young women who were normal weight at baseline. These results suggest that obesity has long-term ramifications for women 's childbearing experiences with respect to whether and how many children women have in general and relative to the number of children they want.

Key Words: childlessness, fertility/family planning/ infertility, life course, obesity, transition to parenthood.

Currently, more than one third of all men and women in the United States are obese according to their body mass index (BMI) classification (BMI > 30), and another one third of adults are overweight (25 > BMI > 30; Flegal, Carroll, Kit, & Ogden, 2012). In other words, less than half of the U.S. population's weight falls in a range that is considered normal for height.

U.S. obesity rates have recently begun to stabilize (Flegal et ah, 2012), but the increased obesity prevalence over the last three decades and current high rates still lead to its classification as one of the most serious public health problems of the 21st century. This is due to the fact that obesity places individuals at risk of a wide array of health problems, including diabetes, cancer, and heart disease (U.S. Surgeon General, 2007). In addition, obesity leads to an accumulation of risk factors that alter the adult life course and aging process in enduring ways (Ferraro & Kelley-Moore, 2003; Schafer & Ferraro, 2007). Although controversial, some experts have even suggested that the increase in obesity and obesity-related health conditions could decrease U.S. life expectancy for current and future generations of Americans (Olshansky et ah, 2005). In sum, obese adults are clearly in disadvantaged positions for lifetime health and longevity.

This study asked whether obesity's consequences also accumulate in ways that influence the lifetime childbearing experiences of U.S. women. Our inquiry was motivated by previous research conducted by scholars from several academic disciplines, which can be woven together using key ideas from theory aimed at understanding women's lifetime childbearing experiences. This scholarship led us to posit that being obese during early adulthood may increase women's likelihood of childlessness and their odds of underachieving their childbearing intentions. We tested this premise by analyzing 24 years of data from female participants in the National Longitudinal Study of Youth 1979 cohort (NLSY79).

A Life Course Perspective on Early Adult Obesity and Childbearing

The long-term and cumulative impact that health conditions have on the life course trajectories of individuals has been well established. Infant and child health influences key aspects of adult socioeconomic status (Conley & Bennett, 2000; Haas, 2006; Palloni, 2006) and health across the adult life course (Blackwell, Hayward, & Crimmins, 2001; Haas, 2007). Earlier adult health also shapes long-term adult health trajectories (Ferraro, Farmer, & Wybraniec, 1997).

Obesity has specifically been shown to have accumulating and enduring consequences for health (Ferraro & Kelley-Moore, 2003; Schafer & Ferraro, 2007) and socioeconomic well-being (Glass, Haas, & Reither, 2010). Furthermore, these studies suggest that losing weight does not always ameliorate the problems caused by obesity earlier in adulthood. …

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