Care Well

Childhood obesity starting earlier, more severe

illustration of a child playing with blocks

Obesity in childhood and early adolescence can be linked to poor mental health and is often a precursor to chronic diseases in adulthood, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

A study published in Pediatrics and led by Rollins global health researcher Solveig Cunningham found that rates of new cases of obesity in elementary school are higher and are occurring earlier in childhood than even a decade earlier. The multidisciplinary Emory team includes co-senior authors Michael Kramer, K.M. Venkat Narayan, and postdoctoral fellow Rebecca Jones.

The researchers analyzed the ages children are most likely to develop obesity and which children are at highest risk. They compared data on children entering kindergarten in 1998 and in 2010 and followed them through fifth grade. The data are nationally representative, so findings can be generalized to children growing up in the United States.

Major findings include:

  • Approximately 40 percent of today’s high school students and young adults experienced obesity or could be categorized as overweight before leaving primary school.
  • Children born in the 2000s experienced rates
    of obesity at higher levels and at younger ages than children 12 years earlier, despite public health campaigns and interventions.
  • Non-Black Hispanic kindergartners had a 29 percent higher incidence of developing obesity by fifth grade compared to non-Black Hispanic kindergartners 12 years earlier.
  • The risk of developing obesity in primary school among the most economically disadvantaged children increased by 15 percent.

Cunningham says, “For decades, we have seen the number of children with obesity increasing, despite extensive efforts from many parents and policymakers to improve children’s nutrition, physical activity, and living environments. Have these efforts worked? Is obesity finally receding? Our findings indicate that obesity must continue to be a public health priority.”

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