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Rising Unemployment Rate Linked to Increased Risk of Childhood Weight Gain

Jackie Syrop
Researchers at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that increases in unemployment in California during the Great Recession were associated with an increased risk for weight gain among 1.7 million public school children in the state.
Researchers at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that increases in unemployment in California during the Great Recession were associated with an increased risk for weight gain among 1.7 million public school children in the state.

Furthermore, they suggested that economic problems could have long-term health consequences for children. Research showed that even small changes in weight in children and adolescents can increase the risk of developing chronic diseases in the future.

“Unemployment not only impacts adults,” lead study author Vanessa M. Oddo, MPH, and a PhD candidate in human nutrition at Bloomberg School, said in a statement. “Children are impacted and it’s not something we really talk about.”

The study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, concluded that for every one percentage point increase in county-level unemployment between 2008 and 2012, the school children had a 4% increased risk of becoming overweight. They conclude that because the average change in unemployment over the time period studied was 5.4 percentage points, the increased risk that a child would become overweight is 21%.

The study focused on 1.7 million children in California ages 7 through 18 for whom there were at least 2 measurements of weight and height recorded, so that researchers could compare an individual’s weight against his or her own previous measures. Researchers compared their data with county-level unemployment estimates from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The study investigators said that just as the Great Recession was beginning in 2008, 28% of California public school children were overweight. After peaking at 40% in 2009, the percentage of overweight children fell, but was still at 37% in 2012. The study found some differences in the magnitude of the effects of unemployment among demographic subgroups, with the largest seen for unemployment among Native Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Oddo and coauthors Lauren Hersch Nicholas, PhD; Sara N. Bleich, PhD; and Jessica C. Jones-Smith, PhD, MPH, said the study showed the negative and lasting health effects of an economic shock like the Great Recession. Childhood obesity is one of the biggest public health concerns of our time, and since it’s not easy to lose weight once it’s gained, this period of economic hardship could have consequences that last long into adulthood, the study authors note.

Although the investigators found a link between increases in unemployment and an increased risk that a child would be overweight, they could only hypothesize about the reasons behind the finding: that in times of belt-tightening, families may have changed their food purchasing habits, for example, from fresh fruits and vegetables to cheaper, high-calorie alternatives such as processed convenience foods. Similarly, school districts may have cut back on school activities that promote exercise, 

 
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