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Study found older sibling's obesity was strongest predictor for risk

By Steven Reinberg

HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, July 8, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Obesity is known to run in families, but new research suggests this relationship may be the strongest among siblings.

Although older children in a two-child home with an obese parent are more than twice as likely to be obese, having an obese older sibling may raise the risk more than fivefold for a younger child, whether the parents are obese or not, the researchers reported.

"Siblings have a lot of influence," said lead researcher Matthew Harding, an assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

"Children often model their behavior on that of their older siblings. Older siblings can have a strong influence on the attitudes and behaviors of younger siblings in relation to nutrition and exercise," Harding noted.

Although parents play a big role in determining their children's health, siblings may play an even greater role, he added.

For example, if the siblings are of the same sex, a boy with an obese older brother is 11 times more likely to be obese, Harding said.

"We need to recognize that children form strong bonds with their siblings, and when designing prevention or treatment of conditions such as obesity, we need to think carefully about the ties between siblings," he said.

While the findings pointed to an association between obesity risk and siblings, they did not prove a cause-and-effect link between the two.

The report was published online July 8 and will appear in the October print issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, was not involved with study but is familiar with the findings. He said, "My reaction to this study is partly as an obesity expert, but largely as a parent. My wife and I have five children, so I have firsthand knowledge of sibling interaction."

Families share behaviors, values and dietary patterns, he said. "To some extent, this is a study showing that kids exposed to a set of familial patterns and priorities that protect against obesity will be less vulnerable and, of course, vice versa," he added.

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