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May 03, 2018

Understanding the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Obesity

Some of the health effects of childhood obesity are reversible with early weight loss, study finds.

The effects of childhood obesity may be reversible, based on a recent study that found obese children who achieved a healthy weight by their 20s had better cardiovascular outcomes than those who remained obese.

Published in the European Heart Journal, this study looked at the health effects of changes in weight from childhood to adulthood. The goal was to see how gaining, losing or maintaining weight over time impacts risk for heart disease—the leading killer of Americans.

The study included 2,631 participants from Finland whose health and weight were tracked from 1980–2011. Participants were 6–18 years old at the start of the study and 34–49 years at their latest follow-up.

Overall, more than half of participants maintained a normal weight throughout the entire study period. However, most participants had some type of weight fluctuation between childhood and adulthood.

One-third became overweight by their mid-30s, and 4% were the opposite—starting out overweight or obese in childhood and losing the excess weight by their 20s. The remainder of participants gained or lost weight but remained overweight or obese throughout the study period.

After analysis, researchers found that individuals with worsening or persistent obesity had significantly greater cardiovascular risk later in life. They were more likely to have conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and plaque build-up in the arteries, all of which greatly increase risk for heart disease and life-threatening heart events.

The good news, however, is that overweight and obese children who achieved a normal weight by their 20s had much lower risk than those who remained overweight. In fact, participants who resolved their weight by early adulthood had the same risk for high blood pressure and high cholesterol as those who were never overweight.

The only catch was that patients who lost weight still faced increased risk for unhealthy arteries and type 2 diabetes later in life.

Still, findings are encouraging for children who struggle with overweight and obesity. As authors explain, preventing childhood obesity is ideal for reducing future health risks. However, findings provide hope for individuals who may have struggled with their weight growing up, as some of the effects may be reversible with weight loss.

Authors encourage addressing childhood overweight and obesity at a young age, as early intervention can prevent permanent damage to heart health.

Questions for You to Consider

  • How important is maintaining a healthy weight?

  • Overweight and obesity greatly increase risk for diabetes, heart disease and a number of cancers — all of which can be life threatening. Therefore, it is important to take action toward maintaining a healthy weight, as losing just 5-10% of your weight can help reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, and reduce risk for heart disease.
  • What is a healthy weight for children?
  • Body mass index (BMI) is used to determine whether a child falls into an underweight, healthy weight, overweight or obese range. For children, BMI is calculated using height and weight, and takes into account both age and gender. Children with a BMI falling between the 5th and 85th percentile are considered a healthy weight.

Infographic: Obesity

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