New research suggests that childhood obesity, now at epidemic levels in the United States, may affect school performance and coping skills for challenging situations.

For the study, researchers analyzed responses from 22,914 parents and caregivers of children between the ages of 10 and 17 who participated in the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health. The goal was to determine the association between body mass index (BMI) and five markers of “flourishing,” or overall well-being, as it relates to the development of positive psychosocial and coping skills, the researchers noted.

“Childhood obesity is one of the biggest public health challenges we face today,” said Natasha Gill, M.D., F.A.A.P., and a pediatric emergency medicine fellow at the Alpert Medical School of Brown University and Hasbro Children’s Hospital.

“We know that children with obesity are at a greater risk for long-term health conditions that can last into adulthood, and we wanted to see whether obesity affects a child’s immediate well-being as it relates to development of psychosocial skills and other signs of flourishing.”

Adjusting for several confounding variables, including gender, child depression status, average sleep hours each night, average digital media exposure each day, highest parental education level, and household poverty status, the researchers analyzed parents’ responses to questions about whether their child:

  • shows interest and curiosity in learning new things;
  • works to finish tasks he or she starts;
  • stays calm and in control when faced with a challenge;
  • cares about doing well in school;
  • does all required homework.

The researchers found that only 27.5 percent of children with obesity, defined as a BMI at or above the 95th percentile for children and teens of the same age and sex, were reported to have all five flourishing markers.

This compares with 36.5 percent of those in the overweight range, with BMI at or above the 85th percentile, and 39 percent of children with normal BMI.

“The negative relationship between obesity and flourishing markers suggests that when compared to children with a normal BMI, obese youth may be less likely to develop healthy relationships, positive attitudes, a sense of purpose and responsibility, and interest in learning,” Gill said.

“Individual markers of flourishing have been shown to stay the same over time like a person’s personality, so it may be important to monitor these markers in childhood to ensure optimal development into adulthood.”

“We want all children to reach their maximum potential,” she continued. “If we can intervene early enough, we can promote positive physical, mental, and social development for these at-risk children and help them become responsible, hard-working members of society.”

She added the study’s findings support the need for focused and coordinated efforts and resources from schools and health care providers that target obesity to improve overall well-being.

The study was presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics 2018 National Conference & Exhibition.

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics

Chart: These are demographics based on Body Mass Index (BMI) for US children aged 10-17 years: National Survey of Children’s Health, 2016 (N=22,914). Credit: Natasha Gill.