May 9, 2023

Study Reveals Being Overweight as a Child Significantly Increases Risk of Heart Disease in Adulthood

In a landmark study published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers demonstrated a strong correlation between excess weight in children and heart disease in adults.

The study of nearly 300,000 Danish children revealed that those who were overweight at ages 7-13 were much more likely to suffer from heart disease as adults. This was true for children who were even slightly overweight.

Perhaps the most remarkable finding was that those who lost the weight as adults still had a much higher risk of heart disease.

The study highlights the importance of early intervention. If your child is overweight, and, through an intervention, you are able to help your child return to a healthy weight before late adolescence, these long-term health risks can be avoided.

The study was published with an analysis of U.S. health statistics that projects teenage obesity will raise the nation’s rate of heart disease by at least 16 percent by the year 2035, causing more than 100,000 additional cases.

“This offers a frightening glimpse of what we have in store,” said David S. Ludwig of Harvard Medical School, who wrote an editorial accompanying the studies. “The epidemic of childhood obesity is not a cosmetic problem. It can have profound long-term consequences for adult illness and death.”

In a companion study also published in the New England Journal, Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo of the University of California at San Francisco used government statistics and other data to project that by the time today’s adolescents turn 35 in 2020, up to 37 percent of men and 44 percent of women will be obese, resulting in an additional 100,000 cases of heart disease by 2035. Bibbins-Domingo said the projections would have been even higher if the analysis had included the Danish data. “We took a very conservative approach,” she said.

For the first time, it is now clear that unless something is done to turn the tide of childhood overweight and obesity, for the first time in American history, the next generation will have a shorter life expectancy.

In America, doctors have not been comfortable with the idea of telling our kids they are overweight, or even talking to them about how to control their weight. The 2002 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey revealed that only 36.7% of overweight kids had actually been told by a doctor or other health care professional that they were overweight.

Another recent study showed that only 1 if 5 parents of overweight children acknowledged that their child had a weight problem.

If we are going to begin to reverse the insidious trend of childhood overweight and obesity, we need to begin to address the problem head-on. As the New England Journal study demonstrated, early intervention is not only a good idea, it’s imperative for the child’s future health and well-being.

Unfortunately, as a society, we’re still catching up to the scope of the problem. Some physicians and parents think it’s superficial to focus on weight. Some think it will go away as kids “grow into their weight.” But statistics show that, in today’s obesogenic environment, an overweight child is much, much more likely to become an obese adult than for the problem to go away.

So hope is not a strategy. A strategy is to seek professional help — from a doctor, a psychologist running a professional weight management program affiliated with a hospital, or a comprehensive, intensive program like Wellspring Camps or Academy of the Sierras boarding schools.

Interventions such as these can make all the difference. Typically, the more intensive the intervention, the more successful. Why is this? Because obesity is a complex problem with many dimensions.

First of all, obesity is deeply biological. Two children raised in the same house by the same parents and exhibiting largely the same behaviors can diverge wildly in terms of their weight. At Wellspring, we frequently hear from parents about the older or younger sibling who is “as thin as a rail.”

Second of all, obesity is deeply environmental. In one generation, the environment for diet and activity has changed radically. This is the only explanation for the epidemic. Our biology hasn’t changed in 30 years (it doesn’t change in 30,000 years, let alone 30).

Finally, obesity is deeply behavioral. A 13-year-old girl with an extremely compromised biology, living in today’s fast-food societyCAN successfully control her weight if she adopts a set of specific behaviors. If she doesn’t, she will become overweight or obese. So despite our biology, despite the environment, we CAN control our behavior. If you encounter someone who disagrees with this, they’re probably disagreeing for a very personal reason (i.e., they haven’t been successful at controlling their own behavior).

Overweight or obesity in a child (or an adult) is a health issue that can be treated. And in addition to Wellspring, there are many fine professionally-managed, scientifically-based weight control programs around the country.

Please feel free to contact Wellspring Admissions (866-364-0808 or email us for more information on Wellspring or Academy of the Sierras programs, or for a referral to a program closer to your community.