“If you gave your child a drug, you’d be held in the court. But if you kill them with food, that seems to be acceptible.”

– Corporate wellness expert Ron Jones (Barnett, July 21, 2009)

Most of the conversation about childhood obesity focuses on health consequences that are down the road. But what many people don’t realize is that unhealthy lifestyles are claiming the lives of children and teens in the here and now, some dying of obesity-related complications while still in elementary school.

How obesity can kill a child

Lisa Miller describes the case of a 9-year-old boy in New York who died of an asthma attack right in front of his mother. He was severely obese, she says, but “his mom kept feeding him junk.” (Miller, 11-29-2010) Officially, this child’s cause of death will be listed as asthma. What isn’t mentioned is that obesity and asthma are interrelated. For example…

    1. In obese children and adults, fat deposits hinder lung function and make it much harder for the lungs to contract and breathe. Studies have found that even minor obesity hinders lung function.

    1. Obesity leads to general inflammation of body tissue, and this inflammation is a key component of asthmatic reactions. (Ehrlich & Charamonte, 2003) The higher the inflammation, the more severe a child’s asthma will be.

    1. The severity of asthma is directly related to a child’s lifestyle. The more sedentary the lifestyle, the harder it is to manage asthma, and the more severe their condition becomes. The lungs are a lot like any other muscle or organ in the body – use them and they become stronger, neglect them and they start to atrophy. It’s why doctors push asthmatic patients to still stay active and get exercise in spite of their condition.

The more overweight a child is, the worse their asthma becomes. Therefore had this boy maintained a healthier lifestyle, it’s quite likely the asthma attack that killed him wouldn’t have been as severe. In fact, it might not have happened at all. If asthma was the bullet that killed him, obesity was the gun.

Szabo (4-13-2011) describes another boy in a similar predicament. At 8 years old and a mere 3 1/2 feet tall, he’s severely obese, weighing 130 pounds. He’s been in and out of the hospital nearly a dozen times for asthma attacks, and takes 3 medications daily. “He’d rather not be out running,” says his father. “He’s so heavy, he can’t do a whole lot.” But of course, the lack of physical activity means both his asthma and obesity will get worse. He’s already played Russian roulette a dozen times and escaped. But it may just be a matter of time before one of these severe asthma attacks ends up killing him.

There are many situations like this all across America. A child dies from an asthma attack, or a stroke, or liver failure, or inflammation in the heart or brain, or even from a seemingly unrelated viral or bacterial infection. What isn’t noted on the death certificates is that obesity and inactivity play a key role in all of these conditions, either causing them directly or making each one substantially more severe than it otherwise would have been. Officially the cause of death is whatever triggered the final death event. Unofficially, doctors know that the real reason these kids died was obesity. Had they been a healthy weight and physically active, either the condition that killed them wouldn’t have been present at all, or their body would have been strong enough to manage the event without it leading to a fatality.

Hospitalizations and death among obese children

You can find evidence for this effect in quantitative data as well. For example, studies have found that obese kids are twice as likely to suffer premature death. This is because “obesity adversely affects not just one risk factor like cholesterol but a whole host of them, including high blood pressure, high blood sugar and chronic inflammation in the body,” says pediatric endocrinmlogist David Ludwig of the Children’s Hospital in Boston. (Hellmich, 2-11-2010) Another study in the journal Health Affairs found that hospitalizations for obese kids among the sample studied nearly doubled between 1999 and 2005, climbing to 42,429. (Hellmich, 6-9-2009)

Diabetes related deaths among children

One condition that is almost exclusively related to obesity is diabetes, and it also happens to be one of the deadliest. Earlier we cited a study showing how 1 in 5 teens that were newly diagnosed with diabetes suffered serious complications within a few years. Among these “serious complications” is death.

Children with diabetes are twice as likely to die prematurely as are adults with diabetes (Kalb, 2010), probably in a large part because they don’t manage it properly. Between 1997 and 2003, researchers saw a two-hundred percent increase in kids hospitalized for complications related to type-2 diabetes. (Denver Post, 6-24-2007)

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