Elephants in the room
A new scientific study shows why Americans need to better address obesity, especially among youth
Americans as a people are alarmingly overweight — that much has been clear for some time now. Over one-third of adults in the United States are currently obese. The statistics are as bad or worse for teenagers and children. It is possible that over 50 percent of teens could be considered overweight or obese. Despite the increased promotion of balanced diets, exercise programs and health-conscious lifestyles, obesity persists as a national crisis.
Fortunately, a new fact about obesity has been discovered that could perhaps serve as the most powerful impetus for Americans to work toward regaining a collective healthy weight. According to the New York University School of Medicine, obesity may have negative effects on a person’s mental capacity. A study of children with metabolic syndrome indicated that obese children perform up to 10 percent more poorly on cognitive tests than children of a healthy weight. MRI scans of the brains of the tested children with metabolic syndrome also indicated more brain atrophy and a smaller hippocampus than among non-obese children.
If the findings of this study turn out to be accurate, then they will hopefully be used at the forefront of the fight against obesity. The United States currently ranks as the world’s most overweight nation. And obesity’s negative physical consequences have not been enough to change the general public’s opinion toward obesity.
If fear of the physical downsides of being overweight will not turn the tide of obesity in America, then hopefully its adverse mental consequences will. In addition to contributing to poor health, physical decline and a potentially shorter life span, it was already known that obesity is linked to shorter attention spans in children. It was not known, however, that one’s mental capacity could actually be harmed by obesity. The new information from the NYU Medical School indicates that obesity can have significant detrimental effects on the mental as well as the physical aspect of a person’s life.
The new findings should come as especially forceful for parents. A recent survey found that parents already worry strongly about their children being obese or not receiving enough exercise, with 38 and 39 percent of parents respectively listing those two issues as top concerns. Now that it has been shown that overweight kids may be hindered in school due to decreased brainpower, one would hope that all parents would begin to care more about their children’s health.
To be clear, calling for a stronger fight against obesity is not saying that obese people should be freely or openly criticized, nor is it implying that they are in some way bad people for being overweight. Obviously, preventing obesity is not an easy task for everyone, and each situation should be treated sensitively at an individual level. From purely a national health standpoint, though, it makes sense to fight obesity as strongly as possible. The evidence on obesity is unmistakable; it is clear that obesity-related problems constitute a considerable strain on the U.S. health care system. It makes no sense that the United States, one of the most scientifically advanced societies in the world, should have such an overweight population when there is so much evidence pointing to the negative effects of obesity. Obviously, there still has to be a cultural shift in thinking about food and eating. A country like Japan, for instance, has an obesity rate one-tenth that of the United States.
The new NYU findings, then, are a welcome empirical addition to the fight against obesity, as they illustrate that being overweight can have all-encompassing effects on a developing person. Not only does obesity at a young age decrease the chances that a child will grow up to be a healthy adult, but it now has been shown that obesity at a young age may lead to children not being as mentally capable as they could have been. Such research should serve as the force behind an increased wave of people striving for healthy lifestyles. And because children are involved, more findings may pave the way for subsequent generations to continue to be healthier too.
Alex Yahanda is a senior associate editor for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org