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Published in Print: April 23, 2003, as Health Update

Health Update

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Child Obesity Hurts Emotional Health, Study Says

Many obese children rate their quality of life as low as do young cancer sufferers, a study concludes.

Published in the April 9 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, the research found that youngsters who are seriously overweight take a dim view of their emotional, social, and physical health in comparison to other children.

"There is a growing awareness of the long- term health complications of obesity in children and adolescents, yet many pediatricians do not offer treatment to obese children in the absence" of other health problems, the study's authors write. "However, the most widespread consequences of childhood obesity may be psychosocial."

In the study, 106 children between the ages of 5 and 18 who had been referred to an academic hospital for evaluation of obesity were asked to rate their physical, emotional, and social well-being, as well as their ability to function normally at school. Compared with a control group of children with healthy weights, the obese youths were five times more likely to report a low health- related quality of life.

The authors, led by Dr. Jeffrey B. Schwimmer of the University of California, San Diego, note the similarities in the emotional, social, and psychological states of young cancer patients and obese children. Both categories of youngsters, they write, have trouble keeping up with their peers at school and participating in common activities such as sports. Moreover, they may suffer teasing and ostracism by classmates.

Obese children, however, aren't exposed to intense medical interventions like chemotherapy that cancer patients typically undergo, making the comparable social, psychological, and emotional states of the two groups of youngsters all the more surprising, the researchers say.

Pediatric cancer patients, the researchers note, post the lowest scores of any chronic-illness group assessed with the same questionnaire on quality of life used in the obesity study.

Obesity among American youths has more than doubled since the early 1970s. Today, 13 percent of children and adolescents are seriously overweight, according to the ratio of body mass and height used by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It seems that one of the most compelling medical challenges of the 21st century is to develop effective strategies to prevent and treat pediatric obesity," Drs. Jack A. Yanovski and Susan Z. Yanovski of the federal government's National Institutes of Health argued in an editorial that accompanied the University of California study.

An Unlikely Alliance

On the frontline in the war against childhood obesity, a campaign to slim down America's children has forged an unlikely alliance.

Ralph Nader's watchdog organization Commercial Alert is the latest group to take up the cause. Its target is the "purveyors of junk food [that] increasingly are able to use public schools as a platform for their marketing campaigns," Executive Director Gary M. Ruskin said in an April 2 press release announcing the organization's campaign to ban the marketing, distribution, and sale of junk food in schools.

The campaign is endorsed mostly by a wide array of similar-minded organizations, health officials, organic-food producers, and academic institutions. But as proof of "the depth of concern about the childhood obesity epidemic in this country," Mr. Ruskin pointed out that the conservative Eagle Forum was listed side by side with Mr. Nader's Green Party of America in support of the campaign.

Not everyone is on board, though.

The campaign simply "recycles the usual demands like removing soda machines from schools and is endorsed by the usual suspects," retorted the Center for Consumer Freedom, a coalition based in Washington that campaigns against "anti-consumer activists."

"Commercial Alert talks about putting parents back in control of their children's diets," it said, "but the effect of their recommendations would be to hand over control to groups like the Organic Consumers Association."

Eyeing Vision Problems

Nearly 14 percent of children entering Kentucky public schools for the first time needed prescription eye glasses, 3.4 percent had amblyopia or "lazy eye," and 2.3 percent had strabismus or "crossed eyes," according to a recent study.

In the study, published this month in Optometry: Journal of the American Optometric Association, a trio of researchers concludes that without the state's required vision examinations, many of those eye problems might have gone undiagnosed and untreated, hampering the children's ability to perform well in school.

The authors studied a sample of 5,316 vision examinations performed on children who entered the public school system in Kentucky between July 15, 2000, and April 1, 2001.

—Darcia Harris Bowman

Vol. 22, Issue 32, Page 9

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