Researchers at the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute found a drop in obesity rates among Massachusetts infants and preschoolers, reports the Boston Globe.
The study, which analyzed the electronic medical records of nearly 37,000 children from birth to age 5 in Eastern Massachusetts, was recently published in the journal Pediatrics. Researchers reported the percentage of obese girls under age 6 dropped from 9 percent to slightly less than 6 percent from 2004 to 2008. The percentage of obese boys under age 6 fell from nearly 11 percent to a little less than 9 percent during the same time period.
Childhood obesity has become a nationwide epidemic over the past decade. According to Today’s Dietician, obesity is showing up earlier in life, with 10.5 percent of children ages of 2 to 5 now classified as overweight. In addition, 2009 studies by Harvard Medical School found that children who are obese at 6 months are more likely to be obese at the age of 3.
To address this growing problem, Massachusetts instituted health initiatives to increase breast feeding rates and reduce smoking during pregnancy. State data shows that less than 7 percent of babies born in 2008 were to mothers who smoked during pregnancy as compared with 19 percent in 1990. This is significant because exposure to cigarette smoke in the womb interferes with genetic programming for appetite regulation in fetuses. In addition, studies show that breastfed babies are less inclined to be overweight by age 3.
Researchers also point to a greater awareness and the determined efforts of parents, doctors and preschools to prevent obesity.
“I’ve seen some increased awareness in day-care centers and efforts to introduce healthier foods such as fruits, cut-up vegetables, and cheese instead of crackers and cookies,” said Dr. David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, in the Boston Globe. “And the message may be getting out about the importance of limiting juice and sugary drinks.”
Unfortunately, it appears not everyone is hearing that message.
High-income vs. low-income discrepancy
The Harvard Pilgrim study detected a clear-cut discrepancy in the decline in obesity between children from high-income and low-income families. Children on Medicaid had obesity levels that dropped on average from 12.3 percent to 11.5 percent, a change so small it can be chalked up to statistical chance. Children covered by other health plans, however, experienced a decline in obesity from 10.1 percent to 8.3 percent.
“There’s a subgroup population of kids who don’t seem to be experiencing the same benefit of positive movement as others,” Dr. Lauren Smith, the state public health department’s medical director, told the Boston Globe. “We have to be always cognizant and cautious that the interventions that we’re doing are equitably distributed across all populations at risk so we don’t exacerbate disparities.”
State data has shown that higher income communities such as North Andover and Brookline have obesity rates in the 8 to 10 percent range for school-aged children. Rates in neighboring lower-income communities such as Lawrence and Boston are at 25 percent for the same age group.
Smith attributes the differences in part to a lack of access to affordable fruits and vegetables in lower-income communities as well as safe places for children to play outdoors.
Still a way to go
The great danger in this new study is to consider the war against obesity over. “We have to treat the gains that we’re seeing as fragile and not certain,” said Dr. James Marks, vice president of the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Group, Princeton, N.J., in the Boston Globe.
“We might have turned the corner, but the epidemic isn’t over. We have a long way to go to get back to where we were in the 1970s,” added Marks.
Sharon Gloger Friedman