Childhood obesity like climate change: Outlook is up in the air

The epidemic of obesity in childhood — a condition that has tripled in recent decades and now affects some 12.5-million American kids — appears likely to put an entire generation at high risk of heart disease, says a new study. But just as scientists have had difficulty predicting how climate change would play out, they know little of how, exactly, a generation of obese kids will be affected in adulthood by their childhood weight, says an accompanying editorial.

Published in the British Medical Journal, a comprehensive review of 63 existing studies — known as a meta-analysis — has found that obese children have higher blood pressure, more worrisome cholesterol profiles, more metabolic dysfunction and thicker heart muscles than lean kids their age.

If a population of adults had all those problems, scientists could predict with some accuracy how many more heart attacks and strokes they’d see in coming years. In kids, however, research doesn’t really allow such precise forecasts.

In short, there is much about the health prospects of these kids that we do not know. Does elevated blood pressure in a child put her at risk of a heart attack — now or later? If a chubby child’s bad cholesterol numbers revert to normal as she grows up and slims down, does she retain a greater-than-normal likelihood of developing cardiovascular disease? Will the abnormally thickened heart muscle of an obese, sedentary boy correct itself if he becomes a veggie-chomping gym rat, or will it always threaten him with the prospect of chest pain, shortness of breath and sudden death?


“Childhood obesity, perhaps like climate change, is at times in danger of inciting an ennui borne out of a repetition of problems without answers, a long latency before problems become apparent and a perception that solutions are out of reach,” wrote editorialists Lee Hudson and Russell Viner of London’s Institute of Child Health.

Their message is not “Don’t worry, be happy.” It’s a call for better research that will lead public health experts in attacking the aspects of child obesity most likely to affect a future generation’s health.