WASHINGTON – Being overweight as a child significantly increases the risk for heart disease in adulthood as early as age 25, according to a large new study that provides the most powerful evidence yet that the obesity epidemic is spawning a generation prone to serious health problems later in life.
The study of more than 276,000 Danish children found those who were overweight when they were 7 to 13 years old were much more likely to develop heart disease between the ages of 25 and 71 – even those who were just a little chubby as kids, and possibly regardless of whether they lost the weight when they grew up.
“This is incredibly important,” said Jennifer Baker of the Institute of Preventive Medicine in Copenhagen, who led the research being published today in the New England Journal of Medicine. “This is the first study to convincingly show that excess childhood weight is associated with heart disease in adulthood, or with any significant health problem in adulthood.”
The study was published with an analysis of U.S. health statistics that projects teenage obesity will increase the nation’s heart disease rate by at least 16 percent by the year 2035, causing more than 100,000 additional cases.
The proportion of U.S. children who are overweight has tripled since 1976, and the number now exceeds 9 million. The sharp rise has already caused a jump in children developing Type 2 diabetes, which used to be known as adult-onset diabetes because it occurred almost exclusively among adults. Children are also increasingly being diagnosed with high blood pressure and cholesterol. Baker and her colleagues analyzed information collected about the height and weight of 276,835 Danish schoolchildren between 1955 and 1960 and scoured hospital records from between 1977 and 2001 to see which of them went on to be hospitalized for heart problems as adults.
The risk increased with any amount of excess weight in childhood, the researchers found.
“Even a few extra pounds increases the risk,” Baker said. “That’s the very frightening message from our results.”
The greatest increased risk was for the heaviest older children, the researchers found.
For example, a 5-foot-1-inch boy who weighed 121 pounds at age 13 had a 34 percent greater risk compared with a boy of the same height and age who had a normal weight of 96 1/2 pounds. The risk was 51 percent higher if the boy weighed 132 1/2 pounds.
The risk was significantly lower for those who were overweight at age 7 but not at age 13, indicating that a child who can lose excess weight while still young, and remain at a normal weight, can reduce the extra risk substantially.
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