A week of obesity predictions paints dire health future for today’s kids

Published on
December 1, 2017

Earlier this week, researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health released a study that makes a downright gloomy prediction: Nearly six in 10 of today’s children will be obese by age 35, if current trends continue. Half of them will become obese during childhood.

Those are staggering numbers, with dire health implications. By way of comparison, fewer than 37 percent of adults are obese today, according to the CDC. If that figure jumps to 57 percent, as this latest study projects, it would represent a health crisis of massive proportions, since obesity is tied to a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer.

For the study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Harvard researchers gathered weight and height data from five longitudinal U.S. studies, comprising more than 41,500 children and adults, and then used that data to create computer simulations that modeled children’s growth trajectories through the age of 35.

The researchers say their findings provide fresh evidence in support of policies and programs that aim to curb obesity as early as possible. They find severe obesity in particular has a cruel momentum that starts in the first years: “At 2 years of age, severely obese children have only a 1-in-5 chance of not being obese by the age of 35 years; by 5 years, that chance is halved, to 1 in 10,” the study found.

“It is critically important to implement policies and programs to prevent excess weight gain, starting at an early age. Plenty of cost-effective strategies have been identified that promote healthy foods, beverages and physical activity within school and community settings,” Steven Gortmaker, a professor of the practice of health sociology at Harvard and one of the study’s authors, said in a statement.

But such community and school efforts often pose huge practical challenges and deliver modest returns.

The day after the Harvard study was released, researchers at UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research hosted a briefing that modeled how an ambitious obesity prevention program organized by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is likely to change obesity rates by the year 2040.

The program, known as Nutrition Education Obesity Prevention, tries to tackle the problem from multiple angles: corner store makeovers to boost healthier fare, new community gardens, farmers market programs for low-income residents, nutrition and cooking classes, exercise classes, and so on.

This kind of approach — eschewing silver bullets in lieu of a comprehensive strategy aimed at shifting behaviors on multiple fronts — would seem like a smart prescription for getting at the complicated social, economic and behavioral forces that make obesity such a tough policy challenge.

But when UCLA researchers put up the graphs that showed how they expect obesity levels will change between now and 2040, the results looked rather underwhelming. The obesity lines march steadily upward over the years, and only slightly less so when the county’s obesity prevention is factored into the model.

For example, the obesity rate in South Los Angeles is projected to be 58 percent in 2040 with no prevention effort, and 55 percent with the full public health intervention. In Northeast LA, the obesity rate would be 50 percent in 2040 with no intervention, or 45 percent with the program, the UCLA researchers predicted.

“Even with interventions, the rates of obesity continue to increase over time,” Susan Babey, senior research scientist at the center, said at the Thursday briefing. “But the rates of obesity don’t increase as much.”

That’s strictly true as a summary of the numbers. But the margins matters here, and it’s hard not to feel discouraged by the notion that such a comprehensive, resource-intensive program only appears to shave a few percentage points off what is still forecast to be a rather dire societal epidemic.

It doesn’t mean such efforts are futile, but it does seem to suggest we haven’t fully found the policy prescription capable of meaningfully addressing the obesity problem.

[Photo by Port of San Diego via Flickr.]