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Public health study finds obese children suffer from adult diseases

by Carolyn Pennington - December 5, 2005

One quarter of Connecticut’s school children, particularly the urban poor, are overweight, according to a report by the UConn Graduate Program in Public Health.

“What we found the most startling is the severity of the problem – that is, the number of children suffering from adult diseases because they are obese or overweight,” says Luce Buhl, a graduate student in public health, one of 25 students who worked on the project.

Graduate student Katie Zito says another surprising finding “was the link between the mother’s prenatal health and childhood obesity. Children conceived by women of average weight have a lower likelihood of becoming obese. Breastfeeding also reduces a child’s risk for obesity.”

The students spent more than 2,000 hours working on the project, which is part of a newly instituted service learning requirement of the Graduate Program in Public Health.

The second-year students worked alongside, and in partnership with, more than 130 community-based organizations for nearly a year to help determine the present and future burden of childhood obesity in Connecticut and what can be done to help reduce the severity and scope of the problem.

“Obesity poses a difficult public health challenge for our state in the future,” says Zito.

In Connecticut, $492 million in Medicare and Medicaid spending annually can be attributed to health problems caused by or related to obesity. If present trends continue, strains on the health care systems are unavoidable.

For example, the report found the ‘extra’ osteoarthritis cases directly attributable to childhood obesity represent roughly 10 percent of all osteoarthritis cases likely to be seen in the future. The estimated numbers of diabetes and hypertension cases would constitute nearly one-third and one-fifth of future diabetes and hypertension cases, respectively.

The report makes several recommendations to help reverse the trend: increasing the availability of healthy food for sale at schools, including prohibiting the sale of soda; setting higher standards for exercise curricula in school systems; fully funding childhood obesity programs and collecting, reporting, and monitoring the body mass index (BMI) data for all school-aged children.

Buhl says parents can do their part by encouraging their children to eat healthier foods. Primary care medical providers need to offer nutritional guidelines so parents know which foods are best for growing kids.

Parents also need to push their children to be more physically active.

“If your kids can’t go outside to play,” she says, “get a jump rope or turn on some music and dance.”

David Gregorio, director of the Graduate Program in Public Health, says that by doing the report, “our students gained valuable insight into our public health and social services systems, and established important relationships with health practitioners, agencies, and institutions around the state. Through those combined efforts, they acquired experience and skill addressing one of the most significant public health issues of our time.”

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