Obesity in children increases the risk of asthma diagnosis, says a study led by researchers at Nemours Children’s Health System. In fact, at least 10 percent of all cases of childhood asthma in the U.S. could be prevented if the kids were not obese, according to the authors.
“With these data, it is suggested that reducing the onset of obesity in childhood would significantly reduce the public health burden of asthma in children,” researchers concluded.
The study was published today in the journal Pediatrics.
By analyzing the medical records for half a million children in the U.S., researchers found that those who were obese were significantly more likely to have asthma than their normal-weight counterparts.
The data is helpful in counseling families, said Dr. Terri Finkel, chief scientific officer at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando. “If you lose any amount of weight, that can potentially prevent [an asthma] diagnosis.”
“If we can get through the kids and get that message through to them, we will have a much better chance of not only preventing asthma but also other chronic diseases,” she said.
A growing number of children in the U.S. are obese. In 2016, more than 18 percent of U.S. children were obese, compared with 14 percent in 1999.
The exact mechanisms with which obesity increases the risk of asthma are not known. But studies have shown that children who are overweight and obese take more medications, visit the ER more often and are more likely to be diagnosed with chronic diseases like diabetes compared with their normal-weight counterparts.
“It’s much easier for me to tell a child that he or she is overweight or obese but much harder to change their lifestyle. We have to try,” Finkel said.
The link between asthma and obesity in children has been debated, but new evidence is drawing a stronger association between the two.
A large European study published in September showed that early-onset asthma and wheezing may contribute to an increased risk of developing obesity in later years.
What makes the Nemours-led research stand out is its size.
The study is among the first to use PEDSnet, a multi-specialty network of eight U.S. children’s hospitals, crossing 22 states. The 5-year-old database is funded by the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute, a government-supported nonprofit.
Researchers reviewed the medical records of more than 500,000 children ranging from 2 to 17 years old who received medical care from six of the eight pediatric academic medical centers between 2009 and 2015.
The study’s findings suggest that of the nearly 8 million pediatric asthma cases reported in the U.S., about 1 million are directly attributable to overweight and obesity. Obesity also appeared to be associated with the severity of asthma, researchers found.
The study also showed that being African American, male and younger than 5 years old were among other risk factors for an asthma diagnosis.
Meanwhile being overweight was only a modest risk factor for asthma, a finding that Finkel found surprising.
“It would be interesting to parse the data more to see if there’s a breakpoint,” or certain Body Mass Index, where the association between asthma and obesity becomes significant, said Finkel.