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Uncovering an essential factor in pediatric overweight and obesity
October 04, 2023
Happy Hispanic parents and two young children outside laughing

    Uncovering an essential factor in pediatric overweight and obesity

    Rates of overweight and obesity in adults have been rising steadily. Unfortunately, the same is true for kids. According to the World Health Organization an estimated 340 million children and adolescents aged 5 to 19 years had overweight or obesity in 2016, and 39 million children younger than 5 years had overweight or obesity in 2020. They’re faced with an uphill health battle once obese since it is much harder to treat than prevent.

    Paving the way to a healthier future through research

    When Dr. Shari Barkin isn’t seeing patients in clinic or leading our team as chair of pediatrics and physician-in-chief, she’s researching pediatric obesity prevention and early intervention.

    “If we can determine what, when and how factors contribute to pediatric overweight and obesity, we can intervene at pivotal moments to change kids’ trajectories towards health for a lifetime,” said Dr. Barkin. “By preventing and treating overweight/obesity early, later diseases such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer, liver and kidney disease, and even later life cognitive decline can be reduced.”

    Socioeconomic stressors: One of the many facets impacting children’s body mass index

    Dr. Barkin’s most recent publication in JAMA Pediatrics provides an interpretation of the connection between early-life socioeconomic stressors and childhood body mass index.

    Barkin and her co-authors are experts in childhood epigenetics – how behaviors and environment can affect the way a person’s genes work without any changes in DNA sequence – and what this can help us understand in health and disease development. Their editorial reviewed the recent research of Laurel Raffington, PhD; Lisa Schneper, PhD; Travis Mallard, PhD; Jonah Fisher, BA; Liza Vinnik, BA; 
    Kelseanna Hollis-Hansen, PhD; Daniel A. Notterman; Elliot M. Tucker-Drob, PhD; Colter Mitchell, PhD; and K. Paige Harden, PhD. This research involved collection and analysis of data from the saliva samples of two demographically diverse pediatric cohorts at varying ages. These were combined with socioeconomic measures, including household income, parental education, and racial and ethnic social identities.

    Consistent with Dr. Barkin’s prior studies utilizing salivary epigenetics to understand early childhood obesity in preschoolers, results from this most recent and larger study reinforced that programming for overweight and obesity in the human body begins early in life, long before kids even enter grade school or begin to show signs of the conditions. The study also showed that kids from lower socioeconomic status homes had higher epigenetic BMI compared with those from higher socioeconomic status homes, and African American and Latino children had higher epigenetic BMI compared with their White counterparts.

    A key means of identifying and addressing overweight and obesity early in life

    “While this most recent study shows an association between epigenetic and physiological BMI to socioeconomic status at birth it is important to better understand causality and timing to point us in the direction of effective obesity prevention,” added Dr. Barkin.

    Barkin and her coauthors underscore that these findings are one piece of the full equation. Other components not included in this study, but that have shown to impact metabolic health of young people, include early life nutrition, maternal nutrition, pollution exposure and transgenerational inheritance of obesity. With more detailed factors and relationships to examine, this is a promising step forward in the use of salivary epigenetics to help understand childhood obesity.

    Learn more about new discoveries in pediatric care through research at CHoR.

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