Obesity Rate Grows In Boys Ages 6 To 19

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The obesity epidemic in the United States appears to have hit a plateau — with one exception. Boys between the ages of six and 19 are still getting bigger. Dr. Anjali Jain, a Washington D.C. pediatrician, talks to Deborah Amos about the risks of childhood obesity.

DEBORAH AMOS, host:

The obesity epidemic in America appears to be at a plateau. Two studies out this week show that decades-long increases in the number of obese and overweight Americans has leveled off, except for one group. Boys age six to 19 are still getting bigger, especially the heaviest boys.

With us now to discuss what's happening is Dr. Anjali Jain, a Washington D.C. pediatrician, and an obesity researcher.

Good morning. Thanks for being with us.

Dr. ANJALI JAIN (Pediatrician, researcher): Thank you.

AMOS: What we're going to look at is a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and it seems to suggest that we are reaching a plateau, but not the end of the problem. Is it slowing?

Dr. JAIN: It's hard to say for sure because of the numbers make it difficult to assess long-term trends. But they are hopeful signs, yes.

AMOS: But the worrying part is boys between the age of six to 19, especially those who are already overweight...

Dr. JAIN: Mm-hmm.

AMOS: ...why are they bucking the trend?

Dr. JAIN: Actually, as the obesity epidemic has come on, part of what's happened is not only has everyone been getting a little bit heavier or fatter, if you want to say that, but the heaviest kids have been getting disproportionately fatter. What is different this time is that we're seeing the lack of a plateau in that group.

AMOS: And why that particular group? What is it about those boys six to 19?

Dr. JAIN: Well, we don't know exactly, and we don't know why. It could be that they just haven't reached that plateau yet that girls reached earlier. That's some of the thinking.

AMOS: And when you talk about this particular group...

Dr. JAIN: Yes.

AMOS: ...that appears to be at risk...

Dr. JAIN: Right.

AMOS: ...what are you talking about in terms of obesity, in terms of weight?

Dr. JAIN: Okay. So, if you take, let's say, a 12-year-old boy that's about five feet tall, an absolutely ideal weight for a boy that height at that age would around 91 pounds - so relatively skinny, if you think about it. A kid who was overweight would be more like in the 120 range. And so a kid that's at the 97th percentile - beyond obese, really - would weigh around 133 pounds.

AMOS: Are there long-term health risks for a six to 19-year-old who is already 40 pounds overweight at that age?

Dr. JAIN: Absolutely, there are. I mean, there cannot even be immediate risk. About half of kids who are obese will have one other complication, as in hypertension. Often, they have orthopedic problems, asthma, a lot of other complications. Most kids who are obese as children become obese adults. And once you get to those heaviest sizes, like above the 97th percentile, the risk of complication just goes up exponentially.

AMOS: When you see a study like this that singles out a particular group -you're a pediatrician, you see kids.

Dr. JAIN: Mm-hmm.

AMOS: And does that make you think, okay, I really now have to do something?

Dr. JAIN: I've been feeling that the alarm bells have been going off for quite some time. And luckily childhood obesity is getting a lot more attention and a lot more funding than it used to, because a lot of experts have predicted that children's life spans today are going to be shorter than that of their parents.

AMOS: That's a pretty shocking statement.

Dr. JAIN: That's what people have predicted, if it continues at the current rate.

AMOS: So now you have a boy at risk between the ages of six and 19. Would you say to a parent, you really do have to go talk to your pediatrician?

Dr. JAIN: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. I mean, talk to a pediatrician, talk to their parents, the family. I mean, really, the whole family lifestyle has to change. It never works to only have something that one child does and nobody else is doing.

AMOS: Thank you very much.

Dr. JAIN: Thank you.

AMOS: Dr. Anjali Jain, a Washington, D.C. pediatrician and an obesity researcher.

(Soundbite of music)

AMOS: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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