Combination of Early-Life Risk Factors Could Quadruple the Risk of Childhood Obesity

Childhood ObesityObesity is a growing health problem among Americans of all ages including young children. The rate of childhood obesity has more than doubled over the past three decades in the United States, putting children at increased risk for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, both major risk factors for heart disease and stroke. Now a new study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition identifies a number of risk factors that could prevent childhood obesity — or increase the risk if not modified.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that the prevalence of obesity among children between the ages of 6 and 11 increased from 8 percent in 1980 to 18 percent in 2012 and that the percentage of obese adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19 increased from 5 percent to almost 21 percent during the same time period. A survey from 2007 found that 70 percent of obese 5- to 17-year-olds had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

For the present study, researchers led by Professor Siân M. Robinson of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom sought to examine the relationship between a number of early-life risk factors and obesity outcomes among children.

The researchers identified five risk factors: maternal obesity, excess gestational weight gain, smoking during pregnancy, low maternal vitamin D status, and short duration of breastfeeding (less than one month).

Using a prospective birth cohort (Southampton Women’s Survey), the researchers identified 991 mother and child pairs. Of the total child participants, only 148 (15 percent) had no early-life risk factors for childhood obesity while 330 (33 percent) had one risk factor, 296 (30 percent) had two, 160 (16 percent) had three, and 57 (6 percent) had four or five.

The researchers then assessed the children at age 4 and found that children with four or five early-life risk factors had a 19 percent higher fat mass and were 3.99 times more likely to be overweight or obese than children with no risk factors. Then at age 6, the children four or five early-life risk factors had a 47 percent higher fat mass and were 4.65 times more likely to be overweight or obese than children with no risk factors.

The findings indicate that “interventions to prevent obesity need to start earlier, even before conception, and that having a healthy body weight and not smoking at this time could be key.” In other words, many early-life risk factors for obesity are modifiable and preventable.

Adds co-author Cyrus Cooper, director of the MRC Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit:

“The large differences in the risk of being overweight in childhood that were shown in this study highlight the importance of early-life risk factors.

“These findings could have important implications for obesity prevention policy and will help us to design future interventions aimed at optimizing body composition, with benefits for lifelong health.”

A study from 2014 found that many parents adopt infant feeding and activity practices that increase the risk of obesity among children later in life, further adding to the growing body of evidence that early-life factors are significant for health outcomes later in life.


A combination of early-life risk factors ‘could quadruple the risk of childhood obesity’:
Improving health before pregnancy could be key to the prevention of childhood obesity:
Modifiable early-life risk factors for childhood adiposity and overweight: An analysis of their combined impact and potential for prevention:

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