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How Obesity Harms a Child’s Body
For the first time in history, American children could have , BRAIN a shorter life span than their parents. The cause: obesity. With about a seen in alarming proportions. And medical experts fear those problems third of all youths overweight or vvorse, adverse health effects are being foreshadow what tomorrow’s young adults will face as the years of excess k, Y,-0 pounds add up. So what happens inside a child or teen carrying this kind of load? As this organ-by-organ summary shows, obesity, kills slowly, causing damage from head to toe, with painful lasting effects.
HEART Try squeezing a tennis ball 10 tirnes in one minute, and you will get an idea of how hard a healthy heart works to pump out blood. Excess weight expands total blood volume, forcing the heart to work harder. Over time, the heart muscle thickens. making it more difficult to pump.
Obesity can directly affect the structure and function of the heart. In some cases, the size of the heart muscle and left atrium appears to increase in obese children. Irregularities in the left atrium would affect the heart’s ability to fill properly. The pumping action of the hearts of obese children may increase. along with the amount of blood pumped out with each beat.
Obese children are two to three times more likely than normal-weight children to develop high blood pressure and high cholesterol, increasing the risk for heart attacks (and strokes). As a result, more youths are being prescribed medications to minirnize the risk; many will be on drugs for life. Studies already show that overweight children are at risk of developing heart disease as early as their 20s.
LIVER Fatty liver disease, typically found in adults who indulge in high-fat foods or large amounts of alcohol, now occurs in a third of obese boys and girls, particularly Hispanics. In the short term, it can cause recurrent abdominal pain, infection and fatigue. In the long term, it is linked to scarring and cirrhosis of the liver, liver failure (potentially requiring a trans- plant) and liver cancer.
, Obese children are prone to pseudotumor cerebri, a little-understood buildup of pressure in fluid 1, around the brain. It can cause severe headaches , and impaired vision. At least one study has k suggested obese children might also tend er- toward lower IQs and be more likely to have brain lesions similar to those seen in Alzheimer’s patients.

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LUNGS Fat deposits in the chest wall can push against the lungs and diaphragm, making it harder for the lungs to expand and bring in oxygen. An obese child can feel out of breath while standing still. Obese children are two to five times as likely to develop sleep apnea, in which breathing is temporarily interrupted during sleep when the thicker tissues in the throat and neck sag. As a result, less oxygen is sent to the brain, which can hamper a child’s ability to concentrate and learn. Sleep apnea can also heighten the risk of heart attack and stroke. Among children 6 to 1Z hospitalizations for sleep apnea increased fivefold from the late 1970s to the late 1.0s.
ASTHMA Obesity increases the ekk of asthma, a disease in which the airways become constrict.. Having asthma can trigger a cycle in which a child is unable to be physically active and therefore gains weight. Obese children have a twofold risk of asthma.
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BONES and GROWTH PLATES In a child, there are special structures at the end of most bones called growth plates. The growth plate is made of a type of cartilage that lengthens the bone as a person grows. The top part of the thigh bone is shaped like a ball that fits into the hip socket.
GALLSTONES Gallstones — solid clusters of cholesterol that form in the gallbladder — used to be rare in children. But now, “not a week goes by when you’re not operating on a child with gallstones,” said surgeon Kurt Newman of the Children’s National Medical Center. Obesity is a major risk factor because of how it affects the gall bladder’s rnetabolism, increasing the amount of cholesterol in the liquid bile that helps digest fats. Gallstones can cause pain, vomiting, inflammation and infection.
Among children 6 to 1Z hospitalizations for gallbladder disease tripled from the late 1970s to the late 1990s.
PANCREAS Obesity causes insulin to not work normally in the body. This is called insulin resistance. Insulin, made in the pancreas, helps bring glucose (sugar) into the body’s cells, where it is the main source of energy. When people are obese and insulin-resistant, they have to make more and more insulin. Eventually they cannot make enough insulin to meet these demands, and diabetes develops. “Type 2 diabetes will damage your blood vessels throughout your life and decrease your longevity,” said Robert H. Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California at San Francisco. “Once you get Type 2 diabetes, figure you have 20 more years of life and then you are dead. So if you get it at 15, you’ll be dead at 35.” Some case reports estimate a tenfold increase in Type 2 diabetes among children and teens, with African American girls particular, vulnerable.
HORMONAL CHANGES Obese girls are prone to starting their menstrual periods earlier. Because a girl usually stops growing about two years after her period begins, overweight girls might not achieve their full growth potential. Obese girls are also more likely to develop polycystic ovarian syndrome, which can cause unusual hair growth, sterility and other symptoms• Research indicates that obese adolescent girls have two to three times the risk of dying by middle age compared with girls of normal weight.
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In a condition called slipped capital femoral epiphysis, the top of the ball slips off the femoral head through the growth plate. Think of the ball as a scoop of ice cream that falls off the “cone,” the thighbone. In obese children, the bone and cartilage are not strong enough to bear excess weight.
BLOUNT’S DISEASE Excessive weight on the growth plate of the tibia can cause the lower leg to angle inward, resembling a bowleg. Unlike bowlegs, which tend to straighten as a child develops, Blount’s disease is progressive and the condition worsens. This condition is more common among African American children.
METABOLIC SYNDROME Obesity can also lead to this relatively new condition. Excess fat in the belly produces noxious factors that interfere with normal glucose and fat metabolism and leads to inflammation in the blood vessels. Metabolic syndrome increases the risk of diabetes fivefold. If the syndrome persists into adulthood, a person is three times as likely to have a heart attack or a stroke.
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FAT AND THE BODY
A fat cell is like a plastic bag that holds a drop of fat. The number of fat cells a person has is determined by late adolescence — overeating in childhood creates more. The cells increase and decrease in size depending on how much fat they store. So although overweight children can become lean (as their fat cells shrink), they do not lose the extra fat cells no matter how much weight they lose.
LOSING WEIGHT Weight is determined by the rate at which the body stores energy from the food one eats and the rate at which that energy is used. When one is not eating, food is not absorbed. However, the I.dy is always using energy, and the energy must come from internal reserves.
WHAT IS BMI? F.dy mass index is a measure of weight in relation to height that is used to estimate a person’s body fat and, by extension. health risks. BMI is the most widely accepted method used to screen for overweight in children and adolescents. but it is not an actual measure of body fat. Being “obese” means that a child has a WI at or above the 95th percentile for his or her age. A BMI at or above the 85th percentile is labeled “overweight.”
c 2008 The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Posters reprinted by The Washington Post from the five.part series “Young Lives at Risk: Our Overweight Children.” See it online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/health/childhoodobesity/index.html

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