Obese children, as well as kids with metabolic syndrome are more likely to be behind their normal-weight peers in spelling, mental flexibility, arithmetic and overall cognitive scores, researchers from New York University School of Medicine and the Nathan Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research, New York, reported in the journal Pediatrics.

The authors explained that there has been a dramatic increase in obesity rates in the USA over the past twenty years. The prevalence of metabolic syndrome among children has also risen significantly.

Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of health conditions, including high blood pressure (hypertension), elevated blood glucose levels, central obesity (too much fat around the waist), abnormal cholesterol levels, and insulin resistance. Metabolic syndrome is seen as a prelude to diabetes type 2.

Previous studies had demonstrated a link between metabolic syndrome in adults and cognitive deficits. This study has now shown that metabolic syndrome in teenagers is associated with even more extensive cognitive problems.

Dr. Antonio Convit, a professor of psychiatry and medicine at the NYU Langone School of Medicine, and team set out to determine what effects obesity and metabolic syndrome might have on teenagers. They compared 49 teens with metabolic syndrome to 62 peers without the disorder. All the children were matched socioeconomically.

They found significantly lower scores among those with metabolic syndrome in:

  • Arithmetic
  • Attention and attention span
  • Mental flexibility
  • Spelling
  • They also identified lower volumes of matter in the hippocampus and white matter integrity. The hippocampus is an area in the brain that regulates, learning, memory and emotion.

The authors wrote that according to their findings, obesity-associated metabolic dysregulation, which has not yet reached a level for a diagnosis of diabetes type 2, may also cause brain complications during a child’s teenage years.

When considering early treatment options for childhood obesity, the researchers suggest that doctors should include therapies to improve brain function.

Dr. Convit said that further studies are required to find out whether obese teenagers might regain cognitive performance and structural abnormalities in the brain if their lose weight.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from the early 1980s until the year 2000 obesity rates among children and teenagers in the USA went up nearly threefold. From 2000 to 2006 rates remained virtually the same. In 2008 approximately 17% of all Americans aged less than 18 years were obese, while 32% were either obese or overweight.

A 2011 study found that almost one-third of all American babies/toddlers aged from 9 to 24 months were overweight or obese.

A recent study identified TV viewing habits as linked to childhood obesity rates, and also a factor in helping overweight children lose weight. Researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Obesity Prevention Center said that reducing TV viewing time may help prevent excess weight gain among teenagers.

Over the last few years, health authorities in the USA have tried to reduce the availability of sugary drinks in schools. A recent study found that although there has been some improvement, there are still too many sugary drinks available in American schools.

Written by Christian Nordqvist