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Obesity is bad for kids' brains

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  September 3, 2012 07:26 AM

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There's a scary new study showing that obesity can hurt kids' brains.

It's not news that obesity is bad for kids. It increases their risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, orthopedic problems and a whole bunch of other health problems. But what this study in the journal Pediatrics is talking about is different: it's talking about effects on the brain.

Researchers looked at 49 adolescents with metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome, a consequence of obesity, is the triad of insulin resistance (pre-diabetes or diabetes), high blood pressure and high blood lipids. The researchers compared the adolescents with 62 adolescents who had the same socioeconomic background but didn't have metabolic syndrome.

The kids with metabolic syndrome had more trouble with arithmetic, spelling, attention and mental "flexibility" than the ones who didn't have metabolic syndrome. Even more frightening, the researchers saw actual changes in their brains, in the hippocampus (which plays a crucial role in memory) and the white matter (which passes messages through the brain).

It was only a small study, and not all kids with obesity have metabolic syndrome. But this study is alarming--especially since we don't know if losing weight can make the brain go back to normal. Given that brains are still developing in adolescence, it's very possible that the changes could be permanent.

What else do we need before we take the problem of childhood obesity really seriously? More and more, it is becoming clear that obesity can steal a child's future away.

In another study in the same edition of Pediatrics, German researchers looked at all the risk factors for childhood obesity and calculated which had the largest effects. You know what the two biggest factors were? Parental obesity and media time. If we tackle those two, it would have a bigger effect than getting kids to exercise or eat fruits and vegetables, they say. So as we start out this new school year, let's shut off the television and video games--and parents, when you are buying back-to-school shoes for the kids, pick up a pair of sneakers for yourself.

Let's work together to get our children's future back.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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