Health inequalities emerge in children as young as three

By June Shannon Policy News   |   23rd May 2019

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds more likely to be overweight or obese – new study

Health inequalities emerge in children as young as three years of age in Ireland with those from more disadvantaged backgrounds more likely to be overweight or obese, a new study has revealed.

For the research scientists at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), analysed data on body mass index (BMI) from 41,399 children measured over time in three European countries – Ireland, the UK, and Portugal – using the mother’s highest level of education as a marker of socio-economic position.

The research revealed that while there were no differences in BMI between children in infancy, differences in BMI emerged by pre-school age (3-5 years) with children whose mothers has attained primary and secondary education gaining body mass at a faster rate compared with children whose mothers were educated to third level.

These differences continued to widen as the children aged in all three countries.

“ They are quite literally carrying a heavier burden of disease from much earlier in life,"

Dr Cathal McCrory, Professor of Psychology and lead author , TCD

In general, the research found that children whose mothers were educated to primary level were more likely to be overweight or obese compared with children whose mothers had attained third level or university education.

According to the authors, this is a worrying trend as children who are obese in early life are more likely to maintain this status into adolescence and adulthood, increasing their risk for chronic conditions later in life.

Dr Cathal McCrory, Professor of Psychology at TCD and lead author of the paper said, “This study shows that children from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds gain body mass more quickly than their more advantaged peers, are more likely to be overweight or obese from pre-school age onwards, and are more likely to become obese if previously non-overweight.

“They are quite literally carrying a heavier burden of disease from much earlier in life. These findings reinforce the necessity of challenging the childhood obesity epidemic at early ages as these patterns are difficult to change once they have become entrenched. Urgent government action is now required to understand the material, social, and structural barriers that contribute to these stark socio-economic differences in obesity risk”.

“ We know that those of lower socioeconomic backgrounds are disproportionately disadvantaged by factors associated with disease more than those from more advantaged backgrounds,"

Sarah Noone, Dietitian , Irish Heart Foundation

Professor Richard Layte, Professor of Sociology at TCD and senior author of the study said the research showed that inequalities in health and life expectancy start early in life and are well established by the age of five.

“Most children who are obese have a higher risk of being obese in adulthood with long-term health consequences. For example, other data from Growing Up in Ireland show that obesity at age 17/18 is already associated with raised blood pressure. This is a public health issue that needs urgent action,” he said.

Commenting Sarah Noone, dietitian with the Irish Heart Foundation said, “Obesity is an extremely complex multi-factorial chronic condition with no one single cause- in fact more than one hundred complex factors have been identified and there is no simple solution.”

“We know that those of lower socioeconomic backgrounds are disproportionately disadvantaged by factors associated with disease more than those from more advantaged backgrounds as a result of social inequalities. This study highlights how children from lower socioeconomic status backgrounds have an increased likelihood of having overweight or obesity compared to their peers from more advantaged backgrounds. It also emphasizes the need for government action on environmental, social and material barriers to health that contribute to evident health inequalities we are seeing.’’

This study was published in Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology [Monday, May 20]. The findings arise from Trinity’s involvement with the LIFEPATH project, an EU-funded consortium project investigating social differences in healthy ageing.

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childhood obesity disadvantaged health inequality inequity overweight poverty

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