Numerous studies have linked childhood obesity to a host of potential health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and asthma. While these increased risks may mostly be obvious, a new study suggests that obesity at an early stage in life could also have an impact on something less expected — the cognitive development of young children.
In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Obesity, researchers from Brown University focused mainly on the first few years of a child’s life when noting that there might be an association between a child’s weight in their first two years and their cognitive abilities once they become old enough to attend school. Based on the findings, children aged 2-years-old and below who were “on the threshold of obesity” or overweight at that time had lower scores in perceptual reasoning and working memory at ages five and eight, as compared to children of the same age who weren’t overweight.
For the purposes of the study, the Brown University team gathered information from about 200 mother-and-child pairs, taking note of the children’s height and weight from birth to age two. The researchers then followed up in three-year intervals, giving the children cognitive tests, including a variety of IQ tests once they reached five and eight. Then, they analyzed how the test results related to the children’s weight in early childhood.
According to Quartz, researchers have long been aware that obesity might be linked to poorer cognitive function in adults, due to the possibility that extra weight could result in brain inflammation and hormonal irregularities. The new study, however, specifically looked at young children and the problem of childhood obesity, since the link between obesity and learning difficulties is “less well understood.”
“This outcome … is very important because it may affect someone’s academic performance, career success, and economic productivity at the population level,” read a statement from lead author Nan Li, an epidemiologist at Brown University.
Although the study’s results suggested an association between childhood obesity and poor cognitive skills when looking at the 200 or so child subjects, Quartz pointed out that the research didn’t take into account the possibility that children who are obese or overweight in infancy could lose weight at the time they begin schooling, nor did it determine if children in such a situation would still have a hard time learning due to the “negative association” between body weight and cognitive ability. However, the publication added that those potential pitfalls went beyond the study’s scope, since most of the children had a similar weight status at 8-years-old as they did at five.