Nov. 28, 2012 -- A simple formula that can be done soon after birth may help identify infants at high risk for becoming obese in childhood, researchers say.
The formula calculates childhood obesity risk based on variables that include the baby’s birth weight, both parents’ body mass index (BMI), whether the mother smoked during pregnancy, her professional status, and the number of people living in the baby’s home.
Researchers developed the formula using data from a study of 4,000 children in Finland born in 1986.
They found that children who had the highest obesity risk at birth, based on variables in the formula, were most likely to be overweight or obese in childhood or during their teens.
“This was a very strong association,” says researcher Marjo-Riitta Jarvelin, MD, PhD, of Imperial College London. “All of these risk factors have been previously identified, but this is the first time they have been used together in this way to identify children at risk for obesity.”
Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the U.S. over the last three decades, according to the CDC.
Children and teens who are obese are at risk of becoming obese adults, especially if they become overweight very early in life.
Mom and Dad’s BMI Most Predictive
Jarvelin says she and her colleagues first explored whether childhood obesity could be predicted by examining known genetic variations associated with obesity.
These variations did not prove to be very accurate.
They then examined other factors previously linked to childhood obesity and settled on the ones used in the formula.
The single most predictive factor was the BMI of the mother and father at the time of the child’s birth. BMI indicates whether or not a person is overweight.
She added that the mother’s professional status was an indicator of the family’s economic circumstances.
Children living in poverty are at higher risk for obesity, as are children living in single-parent homes.
Not Clear if Formula Adds Value
In addition to the Finnish group, the formula has been tested in studies conducted in Italy and the United States, and Jarvelin says it proved to be just as predictive.
Pediatric endocrinologist Patricia Vuguin, MD, says it may prove useful for predicting childhood obesity very early in life.
But she adds that pediatricians already know quite a bit about birth and family risk factors that place very young children at risk for obesity.
Vuguin is with the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York in New Hyde Park.
She says that identifying at-risk toddlers and intervening before they become obese children is an important area of discussion and research among pediatricians.
“Keeping a child from becoming obese is really the goal,” she says. “Once they gain the weight it is really hard to get it off.”