Childhood Obesity Can Lead To Learning Problems
September 3, 2012

Obesity Linked To Learning Difficulties In Children

John Neumann for - Your Universe Online

A new study published online in the journal Pediatrics this week finds that children suffering from obesity had poorer scores on thinking tests, mirroring results from a similar study done with adults. Researchers called the results important and reinforced that being overweight as a child is not to be taken lightly.

Antonio Convit, MD, research lead and professor of psychiatry and medicine at NYU School of Medicine and colleagues, compared 49 children with metabolic syndrome (MetS), a collection of at least three health problems associated with obesity, writes Rebecca Smith, Medical Editor for The Telegraph.

Metabolic Syndrome can include a large waist, low good cholesterol, high blood fats, high blood pressure and insulin resistance which is a pre-cursor to type 2 diabetes.

Previous research has linked metabolic syndrome to neurocognitive impairments in adults, but this association was generally thought to be a long-term effect of poor metabolism. This current study has revealed even worse brain impairments in adolescents with metabolic syndrome.

“The prevalence of MetS parallels the rise in childhood obesity,” Dr. Convit said. “There are huge numbers of people out there who have problems with their weight. If those problems persist long enough, they will lead to the development of MetS and diabetes. As yet, there has been very little information available about what happens to the brain in the setting of obesity and MetS and before diabetes onset in children.”

The results of the study found significantly lower math and spelling scores, as well as decreased attention span and mental flexibility. Math scores were ten points lower on average in the MetS group and spelling scores were four points lower. There was also a tendency towards lower overall IQ but memory was not affected.

The researchers also found differences in brain structure and volume, with the MetS groups revealing a smaller hippocampus which is involved in the learning and recall of new information, and other changes. The children were all from similar socio-economic backgrounds, the same age and at the same school grade.

“The kids with metabolic syndrome took longer to do tasks, could not read as well and had poorer math scores,” Convit continued. “These findings indicate that kids with metabolic syndrome do not perform well on things that are very relevant to school performance.”

Further study is needed to determine whether the issues are reversible with significant weight loss. “The message is that just being overweight and obese is already impacting your brain. Kids who are struggling with their weight and moving toward having metabolic syndrome may have lower grades, which could ultimately lead to lower professional achievement in the long run,” Convit continued.

“These are run-of-the-mill, garden-variety kids, not kids that came into the hospital because they were sick. It is imperative that we take obesity and physical activity seriously in children.”

German researchers, in another study published in the same edition of Pediatrics, looked at all the risk factors for childhood obesity and calculated that parental obesity and media time had the largest effects on a child´s overall health.

If we tackle those, writes Dr. Claire McCarthy for, we could see a quicker, more positive outcome than just getting kids to exercise or eat fruits and vegetables.

So as we start out this new school year, let´s shut off the television and video games--and parents, when you are buying back-to-school shoes for the kids, pick up a pair of sneakers for yourself.

“If we can help one kid not become diabetic, that´s one kid´s life we´ve saved,” Dr. Convit said.