Obesity in adults is associated with increased risk of high blood pressure, high total cholesterol, low 'good' cholesterol, and diabetes compared to adults with ideal weight. These factors all contribute to the increased the risk of heart disease and associated disability or death. Obesity and overweight in children have similar effects on cholesterol, blood pressure, and diabetes but since heart disease develops over time, there is less risk of heart disease during childhood. But does obesity through childhood set the stage for increased risk of heart disease in adulthood regardless of adult weight?
Researchers from Finland looked for trends in risk of heart disease in adults who were obese/overweight in childhood. The article published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that adults who were obese in childhood but not in adulthood had similar risk of cardiovascular disease as those who were never obese.
About the Study
The article used data collected from four cohort studies with information on 6,328 people over an average of 23 years. All people had body mass index (BMI) measured in childhood and adulthood. BMI is a measure of weight that takes into account an individual's height. In this study, a BMI of 30 or greater was considered obese.
Compared to people with ideal weight throughout their life, people who were overweight/obese in childhood and adulthood had increased risk of cardiovascular disease including:
- 5.4 times greater risk of type 2 diabetes
- 2.7 times greater risk of high blood pressure
- 1.8 times greater risk of low-density (LDL) “bad” cholesterol
- 2.1 times greater risk of decreased high-density (HDL) “good” cholesterol
- 3 times greater risk of elevated triglyceride levels
- 1.7 times greater risk of increase thickening in wall of carotid artery
When people who were overweight or obese as children but then normal weight in adulthood were compared to people who were ideal weight throughout their life, there was no significant difference in cardiovascular disease risk.
How Does This Affect You?
This is an observational study, which means the results have limited reliability. Researchers do not control for factors that may influence the outcome, simply observe and look for trends. While there were some strong associations found in this study, we cannot conclude that there is an absolute link. This study, however, is one of many studies that have suggested the benefits of positive lifestyle changes on risk of heart disease.
Ideally, this study will be a motivator for young adults that have been overweight or obese, or for parents of children who are overweight or obese. It is never too late to start making positive changes for a healthier body. Although this study is promising news for children’s future health, it does not mean current obesity in children should be given a pass. Rates of diabetes and hypertension are climbing in children, which have health consequences of their own. In addition, lifestyle habits and attitude toward health and wellness develop in childhood and adolescence. It will be easier to make healthy choices as an adult if they were habits in childhood, as opposed to having to overcome bad habits. The sooner children are out of the weight gain cycle the easier it will be for them to maintain healthy weight as adults.
Last reviewed December 2011 by Brian P. Randall, MD
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