Obesity 'epidemic' is cutting lives short
originally at: http://www.capecodonline.com/archives/7days/sun/obesityxepidemicx29.htm

When she was training to become a pediatric cardiologist back in the 1980s, Dr. Phyllis Pollack believed she'd be almost exclusively children born with heart defects.

Lifestyle-related cardiovascular disease in children ''was just unheard of 25 years ago,'' said Pollack, who until recently worked for UMass Memorial Health Care in Worcester.

But the preventive cardiology program at UMass has included a 4-year-old with high cholesterol, as well as teens with hypertension.

Nearly all of the 80 young people in the program are overweight. Their health problems put them at risk of future cardiovascular disease such as heart attacks and stroke.

Obesity is a deadly weapon taking aim at the nation's future health, said Pollack, who is now in a private office with Child Heart Associates, which has an affiliate in Yarmouthport.

''It's a battle out there, and we're not winning,'' she said.

The obesity epidemic now reduces life expectancy by up to nine months and could shorten it by two to five years in the coming decades, according Dr. David Ludwig of Children's Hospital in Boston and other researchers.

Take the risk of premature death from cardiovascular disease.

Nearly 60 percent of overweight children had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease, compared to 10 percent of those with a lower body mass index, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

The American Heart Association estimates that 27 million children under the age of 19 have high cholesterol and 2.2 million have high blood pressure. It's not uncommon for overweight children to have high levels of blood fats called triglycerides.

One of the most publicized risks of childhood obesity is early onset of type 2 diabetes, a disease previously associated with sedentary middle-aged and older people.

Among overweight adolescents, glucose intolerance - a precursor of diabetes - is a common problem. If the rate of childhood obesity doesn't abate, one in three American children born in 2000 eventually will develop diabetes, the CDC says.

''Like a tsunami heading toward shore, we can predict that the human and financial toll of childhood obesity will be overwhelming when they strike in the near future,'' Ludwig said in an e-mail.

Within the next two decades he predicts heart attacks, diabetes, and liver problems will become commonplace among young adults.

From a rare disorder that causes headaches to the increasing incidence of juvenile arthritis, the pains of obesity extend from head to toe.

Carrying around excess weight can put so much stress on children's bones and joints that they develop osteoarthritis. Feet, knees and hips can all be injured.

Overweight children also are at risk of developing sleep apnea, shortness of breath, early sexual maturation, fatty liver disease, gallbladder disease and depression.

More commonly, obesity is associated with depression. Overweight children are more likely to have poor self-esteem and to feel lonely than normal weight children, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Not surprisingly, people who are overweight as children are more likely to be overweight as adults.

Alarmed by the obesity epidemic, the American Academy of Pediatricians is encouraging doctors to monitor their young charges' body mass index and family history of obesity as carefully as they screen for lead poisoning.

By losing a relatively small portion of their body weight, becoming physically active and eating healthier, overweight children can significantly lower their risks of type 2 diabetes, sleep apnea and heart and circulation problems.

Exercise and proper nutrition are often all that's needed to reverse juvenile hypertension, Pollack said.

Taking the TV out of a child's room, getting the child to spend more time outdoors and insisting the family eat together at the table can work better than any pill, she said. ''Sometimes all it takes are simple interventions like that.''

(Published: January 29, 2006)