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Childhood obesity: the impact on long-term risk of metabolic and CVD is not necessarily inevitable

  • Sarah McMullen (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 16 July 2014

The worldwide prevalence of overweight and obesity in the adult population is estimated to be 35 %. These trends are reflected in childhood obesity prevalence, and the potential impact of early-onset obesity is of great concern. The aim of this review was to investigate the long-term implications of childhood obesity for metabolic and cardiovascular health, focusing on the independent contribution of childhood obesity to adult disease risk, as distinct from associations mediated by tracking of obesity across the lifespan. The data systematically reviewed provide little evidence to suggest that childhood overweight and obesity are independent risk factors for metabolic and cardiovascular risk during adulthood. Instead, the data demonstrate that the relationships observed are dependent on tracking of BMI between childhood and adulthood, alongside persistence of dietary patterns and physical activity. Adjustment for adult BMI uncovers unexpected negative associations between childhood BMI and adult disease, suggesting a protective effect of childhood obesity at any given level of adult BMI. Further work is required to explain these findings, both in terms of pathways and statistical artefacts. To conclude, it must be stressed that it is not suggested that childhood obesity is without negative consequence. Childhood obesity is clearly associated with a range of adverse physical and psychological outcomes. However, the data are important in supporting a positive message that the long-term consequences of childhood obesity are avoidable; and that there remains opportunity for intervention across the lifespan. This nuance in understanding long-term risk is important when considering the effectiveness of interventions at different stages of the lifespan.

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Corresponding author
Corresponding author: S. McMullen, fax 0844 243 6001, email
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