The link between obesity and cognitive functions in children
Dr. Lee Ann Grisolano | 09.16.13
What’s the link between obesity and cognitive functions in children? A study by Comer Children’s Hospital at the University of Chicago indicates there might be a relationship between three factors: executive functioning, sleep, and body weight. While not conclusive, the study does create a thin thread. There is no evidence to suggest obesity causes cognitive deficits. There is, however, some indication of a cause and effect scenario.
In 2010, approximately 18 percent of elementary school children were battling the bulge. In kids, obesity is defined as a body mass index above the 95 percentile by age. The good news is those numbers have just recently began to drop, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but the effect still lingers. This surge of weight problems brings with it a host of other ailments from sleep disorders to an increase of kids with Type II diabetes. This is where the connection between obesity and cognitive functions in children likely exists.
One reason that kids might be gaining weight is the enticement to stay inside playing video games and watching television.
Lack of Exercise
The correlation between physical activity and weight management is common knowledge. One reason that kids might be gaining weight is the enticement to stay inside playing video games and watching television. Parental obesity is a primary risk factor for children, as well.
Exercise stimulates the formation of neurons and enhances cell growth in the brain. An earlier study at the Salk Institute showed a clear relationship between brain development and exercise. A group of mice that ran constantly had dramatic growth in the hippocampus – a region of the brain responsible for learning. The active mice learned more efficiently, as well. Their spatial skills were enhanced over those of sedentary mice – thus, proving an association exists between executive functioning and exercise.
Sleep disorders are another side effect of excess weight in both children and adults. Obstructive sleep apnea is characterized by pauses in breathing that last anywhere from a few seconds to minutes. Proper sleep is a significant factor in executive functioning. This type of sleep-disordered breathing interrupts normal sleep cycles. A child that fails to reach adequate slow wave stages three and four restorative sleep is at extremely high risk to struggle daily at school, showing signs of hyperactivity or lack of focus.
For families dealing with obesity and cognitive functions in children, early intervention is critical. Recent studies suggest family-based intervention, or FBI, is effective – especially if done during childhood and preadolescence. Ideal FBIs take a multidimensional approach that includes:
- Behavior modification
- Physical activity
- Parental involvement
In one study, a team of medical professionals met with kids once a week for discussion regarding weight issues. This group showed a significant improvement in BMI and offered long-term results. The process involved testing for related conditions such as depression and diabetes, as well.
Managing the Mass Index
Childhood obesity has proven difficult to conquer. This is why pediatricians are looking at different parts of this complex problem all at once. They may set up family-based interventions and prescribe airway management devices, or habit changes to improve restorative sleep. The goal is to treat comprehensively and improve overall health to reduce factors that may interfere with cognitive functioning and a child’s ability to learn.
The University of Chicago study covers complex issues, but one thing is clear – the bond between obesity and cognitive processes in children is unknown. The general consensus remains that obesity causes many different problems in the human body and they, in turn, may affect executive functioning in children. If you look at any of the factors separately, you may see a connection, but together, they create a perfect storm for children’s learning issues.
Dr. Lee Ann Grisolano
About Dr. Lee Ann Grisolano
Dr. Grisolano is a pediatric neuropsychologist who specializes in helping children and their families conquer problems with learning, attention, behavior and emotions. She is also a certified school psychologist who understands the many ways in which neurodevelopmental disorders can create challenges that are barriers to a child’s learning and development.
Dr. Grisolano has extensive clinical practice in school psychology, neuropsychological evaluation and behavioral assessment. She is an experienced college professor, published researcher and accomplished presenter.
Published in Expert Blog