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Bad news for future generations: Obesity is on the rise among kids

Trends in Severe Obesity Among Children Aged 2 to 4 Years in WIC: 2010 to 2020; Pediatrics, Dec. 18, 2023.

Progress in fighting obesity in very young children has stalled or reversed, according to scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who published their research in Pediatrics.

An accompanying editorial described the results as a “canary in the coal mine for the health of future generations.”

Severe obesity fell significantly among most demographic groups, from 2.1% in 2010 to 1.8% in 2016, with the largest decreases among 4-year-olds, Hispanics, and Asian/Pacific Islanders.

However, in 2020, severe obesity rose 2.0% overall, except for American Indian/Alaska Natives and non-Hispanic white children.

Investigators defined obesity as a body mass index (BMI) greater than 95% of children of the same age and sex, or a BMI above 35.

Commenting on the study, Dr. Sarah Armstrong, a pediatric weight loss specialist at Duke University, wrote that the main contributors to childhood obesity were food insecurity, sleep duration, junk food consumption and time spent on screens or devices.

What does it all mean for kids’ futures? Obesity’s main consequences are high blood pressure, abnormal levels of fats in the blood, prediabetes and early death.

Poor sleep and behavioral issues go hand in hand

Sleep Disturbances and Emotional and Behavioral Difficulties Among Preschool-Aged Children; JAMA Network Open, Dec. 14, 2023.

Sleep disturbances and emotional or behavioral problems occur together so frequently that figuring out what causes them can be difficult. Chinese researchers sought to resolve some of the uncertainty through a large follow-up study of preschoolers.

Using a standard sleep quality questionnaire, investigators surveyed 17,233 children ages 3-4 between Nov. 10-24, 2016, for sleep disturbances. Two years later they searched the children’s records for ongoing or resolved emotional or behavioral difficulties.

At enrollment, 28% of children had behavioral problems and 41% had sleep issues. Both numbers decreased after two years, to 19% and 32%, respectively.

At the end of the study, emotional problems persisted in 35% of the children — but the figure was 50% for children with unresolved sleep issues.

Investigators concluded that routine developmental screenings should include questions about sleep, and that “interventions … are needed” for symptoms of both sleep disturbances and emotional well-being.

Nature-based interventions modestly benefit kids with autism

Nature-Based Interventions for Autistic Children: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis; JAMA Network Open, Dec. 7, 2023. 

Autistic children get treatment in schools, at home and in clinical settings — but could outdoor time improve symptoms, at least in the short term?

To answer that question Chinese researchers searched the medical literature and found 24 studies meeting their inclusion criteria, involving a total of 717 subjects engaging in nature-based interventions.

Nature-based interventions are structured, professional-led outdoor interventions addressing quality of life and emotional well-being.

Studies had to report on at least one autism-related outcome, be placebo-controlled and involve time in outdoor spaces. Papers could be from any year but had to be in English.

Two independent reviewers confirmed the studies’s suitability.

The researchers found nature-based interventions were moderately but meaningfully associated with a 44% reduction in hyperactivity, a 51% drop in irritability and a 13% improvement in attention.

Improvements were also seen in sensory seeking and sensory sensitivity.

4+ hours on phones raises suicide risk

Association between smartphone usage and health outcomes of adolescents: A propensity analysis using the Korea youth risk behavior survey; PLOS One, Dec. 6, 2023.

Korean researchers reported a positive link between cellphone use for four hours or more per day and serious emotional issues, but no association for less than four hours.

Their study of 40,998 adolescents showed that compared with children on phones for less than four hours per day, children who used cellphones for more than four hours experienced 16% more stress perception, 22% more suicidal thoughts and 66% higher alcohol use.

The only outcome that did not increase was cellphone dependency.

Except for smartphone dependency, all outcomes studied decreased steadily from zero to two hours per day but rose thereafter. Although the authors did not address this phenomenon directly, they noted that smartphone use is a self-fulfilling activity as it “induces more usage time by satisfying the immediate reward needs of adolescents.”

This may mean that phone use temporarily initially relieves depression and suicidal thoughts — but only up to a point.

Can CT scans cause cancer?

Risk of hematological malignancies from CT radiation exposure in children, adolescents and young adults; Nature Medicine, Nov. 9, 2023.

Each year, more than one million European children are exposed to ionizing radiation through computerized tomography (CT) scans. Although this type of radiation is a risk factor for blood cancers no one knows if radiation at CT scan levels is dangerous.

To answer this question, a multinational team of researchers followed 948,174 individuals in nine European countries who underwent a CT scan before age 22. They estimated the cumulative radiation dose to bone marrow (where blood cells form) based on the scanned body part, number of scans, scan time and dose per scan (calculated from the machine used).

After correcting for the subjects’ sex, age at scanning, birth year and country, they looked for any blood or lymph node cancer unrelated to either the patients’ underlying condition or current treatment.

They found that for every 10,000 children examined at typical radiation doses per scan, 1-2 would develop cancer within the next 12 years.

Their results highlighted “the need for continued justification of pediatric CT examinations and optimization of doses.”