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Obesity's Impact on Cognitive Development in Children

author image Traci Shoblom
Traci Shoblom is a writing coach, an author and a professional book reviewer. She works with several high-profile corporate clients, including Nightingale Conant, Herbalife, Jim Fannin, Ken Blanchard and others. Her books include "Motherhood, Apple Pie and Other Fattening Things," "If I Die Before I Wake" and "How NOT to Write a Book."
Obesity's Impact on Cognitive Development in Children
Children sitting at their desks in school. Photo Credit: dolgachov/iStock/Getty Images

According to 2010 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 17 percent of American children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 years are obese. Low levels of cognitive stimulation in the home, meanwhile, have been shown to be strong predictors of childhood obesity. In study results published in 2002 in "The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition," researchers demonstrated that once a child becomes obese, he or she is likely to stay obese. Since low levels of cognitive stimulation are strong predictors of obesity, and once you're obese you tend to stay that way, obese children may be likely to have slower cognitive development, perhaps because they were already receiving low levels of cognitive stimulation.

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The Effects of Obesity in Childhood

While the physical dangers of childhood obesity are well-known, the emotional and cognitive effects are just as clear. Obesity during childhood has been associated with damaging psychological effects such as discrimination, stigmatization, emotional trauma and depression. Obese children who experience these effects are likely to withdraw from social interactions. If you aren't getting cognitive stimulation outside the home through interactions with others and you aren't getting it at home, delays in cognitive development can occur.

Leptin and Obesity

Another factor that affects cognitive development and obesity is leptin, an appetite-suppressing hormone that is secreted by fat cells. In 1995, research published in "Science" magazine concluded that some obese mice had lower levels of leptin than other obese mice. And when those mice were given leptin, they lost weight. However, when obese humans were given leptin, the results weren't as direct, Dr. Umut Ozcan of Children's Hospital Boston told the ScienceDaily website in 2009. "Most humans who are obese have leptin resistance," Ozcan said. "Leptin goes to the brain and knocks on the door, but inside, the person is deaf."

The Role of Leptin in Cognitive Development

While leptin isn't necessarily a cure for obesity, leptin resistance in obese people is an important link between cognitive development and obesity. In addition to its role in metabolism, leptin may also enhance cognitive development. Given the links between obesity and leptin resistance and leptin's importance in cognitive development, it follows that obesity may be associated with lowered cognitive functioning.

The Impact of Obesity on Cognitive Development in Children

The childhood obesity epidemic is having an enormous impact on the well-being of American children. Not only are they facing health challenges, but there are also negative psychological and cognitive consequences. Unless the number of obese children falls, the United States could likely become a nation of cognitively impaired, unhealthy adults. Providing children with cognitive stimulation in the home from an early age might be one solution.

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