Mask and Hat

Pandemic Stress, Fast Rising Obesity in Younger Kids

We thought we were done with this. But the stress of the pandemic is unrelenting. That stress is hitting families especially hard and it’s showing up in child health. Notably, more data is telling us that obesity is rising especially fast in younger kids.

A new research letter in JAMA tells us that the prevalence of obesity in kids between five and eleven years old jumped by 39 percent in the first ten months of the pandemic. In contrast, the increase was nine percent for 16 to 17 year-olds.

Data from Kaiser in Southern California

These new data come from patient records of Kaiser Permanente Southern California – a racially and ethnically diverse population. Ethnicity in half of the cohort was Hispanic. But the findings were similar to an earlier study of patient records from a large children’s health system in Philadelphia. In both datasets, the biggest increases in occured in the younger children.

Fatima Cody Stanford, an obesity medicine physician and pediatrician, tells us that we can only speculate about the reasons for this difference among age groups. But it may have something to do with the greater independence of older children and youth:

“My guess would be that younger kids don’t have the agency to be as self-sufficient with regards to things like physical activity and managing stress which was paramount during the pandemic. Older kids may be more equipped to handle these issues.”

Stress on Families and Youth

Stress is an important factor in the risk for obesity. The stress on families and children showed up early in the pandemic, and it persists to this day. Joseph Skelton is a professor of pediatrics, epidemiology, and prevention at Wake Forest and the editor of Childhood Obesity. In the pediatric obesity program he founded, he is seeing the stress that families and children are facing in this pandemic:

“It’s very complex, not just one thing. In particular, I think overall stress has affected children and families in myriad ways. Different stressors for different families.”

As the delta variant keeps up the pressure on families and children, coping skills and community resources will be more important than ever. With schools opening, mental health professionals are bracing for a surge in demand for the care they provide.

When we see angry outbursts around schools trying to open safely, we can only shake our heads and hope that people can find better ways to express the stress they are legitimately feeling. Because in our current circumstances, we need each other to make it to the other side of this pandemic.

Click here for the latest report from JAMA, here and here for further perspective. For more on the mental health challenges families face in this pandemic, click here.

Mask and Hat, photograph © Gilbert Mercier / flickr

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September 1, 2021