Our increasingly not-so-little kids

A large share of U.S. kids — especially the heftiest — are on their way to life-threatening chronic disease

Little kids are meant to get big. Just not too quickly. When overfeeding spurs the girth of young children, youngsters find themselves propelled down the road towards diabetes and heart disease, a new study finds. In just the past decade, for instance, the share of kids with diabetes or pre-diabetes skyrocketed from 9 percent to a whopping 23 percent.

And significant damage may be occurring before family physicians — and parents — realize what’s happening.

Earlier this year, researchers with the National Center for Health Statistics reported that 16.9 percent of U.S. children aged 2 to 19 are obese. Not pudgy, but clinically obese, they observed in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Add in those who aren’t fat so much as overweight and the number jumps to one-in-three kids 6 or older.

Now, researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta have examined key indicators of long-term health in kids. They used the same database that turned up the young heavyweights: the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which collects information on a nationally representative cross-section of the U.S. population.

Among children 12 and over, they now report, 14 percent have high blood pressure or pre-hypertension; 22 percent have borderline-high or high concentrations of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol — the so-called bad type; 6 percent have low concentrations of the good cholesterol (the high-density-lipoprotein type); and 15 percent have diabetes or prediabetes. Although general risk factors for heart-health remained unchanged throughout the 9-year study period, incidence of diabetes and prediabetes more than doubled between 1999 to 2000 and 2007 to 2008. The CDC team detailed its findings online May 21 in Pediatrics.

The diabetes-related trends stem from single, fasting blood-sugar readings from each child — not an ideal assessment. So for now, the authors recommend caution in interpreting these data.

Among children over 12, the study found, 49 percent of those who were overweight and 61 percent of those who were obese exhibited at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease — in addition to their being too heavy. But even normal-weight kids were not home free: More than one in three also exhibited at least one cardiovascular risk factor.

The new data clearly indicate that “a large proportion of adolescents, regardless of weight status, would benefit from . . . programs that promote overall healthy lifestyles, including physical activity, healthy diet, and healthy weight maintenance,” conclude the CDC’s Ashleigh May, Elena Kuklina and Paula Yoon. Not surprisingly, they also recommend that doctors pay more attention to the weight and activity levels of young patients.

But there’s a message in here for the rest of us as well. Parents and grandparents have to recognize that we’re doing the next generation no favor when we ignore the persistence of baby fat in children who are no longer babies. And if we allow this trend to persist unchecked, we’re soon going to jeopardize the ability of insurers to keep health care affordable for all as ever-larger numbers of youngsters develop costly — and preventable — life-threatening conditions.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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