In the study, over 300 severely obese children between the ages of two and 12 were tested and in two-thirds, at least one early symptom for heart disease was detected. Some children displayed more than one cardiovascular risk factor, including high blood pressure, low ‘good cholesterol’ and high blood sugar. High blood sugar levels can also lead to children developing type 2 diabetes, which is largely the result of excessive weight and physical inactivity. Until recently, this type of diabetes was seen only in adults, but is now beginning to occur in obese children.
The findings of this study are of grave concern, since levels of obesity are rising among children worldwide. In a recent report on chronic diseases, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that around 22 million children under the age of five were overweight. Obesity is still most common in the USA, south-western Europe and the UK, where the prevalence of overweight children aged 2-10 years rose from 23% to 28% between 1995 and 2003. However, it is becoming a problem almost everywhere, even in developing countries where people expect the lack of food to be the only issue affecting children.
For example, in Tanzania, WHO data for 1990-1999 showed around 5% of children under the age of five to be overweight. But the incidence is thought to be rising. In its report ‘Preventing Chronic Diseases, a vital investment’, the WHO illustrated the problem by highlighting the case of Malri Twalib, a five year-old boy living in the poor rural region of the Kilimanjaro District. Health workers at a medical centre diagnosed that Malri had a weight problem from eating too much porridge and animal fat and not enough fruit and vegetables. His mother, Fadhila, said “it is just too hard to find reasonably priced products during the dry season.” When health workers visited her home, they also discovered that Malri rarely played outside, because the courtyard of his home was too small and his family considered the road, littered with sharp and rusting construction materials, too dangerous.
Children like Malri are on the increase, especially when they live in urban areas. As lifestyles change, the WHO estimates that more than a fifth of 7-17 year olds in urban centres are now either overweight or obese. These children cannot choose their environment and what they eat, where often the diet of poor families is more limited. It doesn’t help that families in urban areas are exposed to more foods high in fat, salt and sugar and that global marketing now targets children. Added to this, children in poor districts often lack access to safe play and exercise areas. But the new study suggests that the long-term consequences of early childhood obesity may be even greater than initially supposed, making it even more important for health workers to support families in healthy choices and help reduce the risks at this crucial early phase in a child’s life.