Indian Children Offer Clues to Link Between Child Obesity and Early Death

Being obese or having high blood sugar as a kid increases the risk of dying prematurely.

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All parents would love to look into their children's future and see what becomes of them. But for the many children who are overweight or obese, that glimpse might foretell an early death.

We can thank the Pima and Tohono O'odham Indians of Arizona for this unsettling insight. Scientists have studied these populations for years because of their high rates of diabetes and obesity. The 4 percent incidence of high blood sugar levels among the Indian teens in this study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, was once rare. Now, alas, the rest of the country is catching up; about 3 percent of all American teens have high blood sugar.

[Here are 3 simple ways to judge your child's risk of developing diabetes at a young age.]

The adults in the study who were heaviest as children were more than twice as likely to die early than those with the lowest body mass index, and adults who had the highest blood glucose levels as children were 73 percent more likely to die young from illness or self-inflicted injury before age 55. High blood pressure in childhood posed only a slight risk, and high cholesterol did not appear to be a risk factor. The study is significant not only because it's fairly large, tracking 4,857 American Indian children born between 1945 and 1984, but also because it's one of the first to show serious health consequences for people who have high blood sugar in childhood.

This news comes in the same week that Michelle Obama launched her big drive to fight child obesity, and it couldn't come at a better time. Getting kids to change how they eat and building exercise into busy family schedules can be a real pain. It's easy to let it slide in favor of a bit more TV time and fast food, as Obama confesses she did. This latest research should be a wake-up call to all of us that being casual about a child's weight now can have deadly consequences decades later.

[10 Healthful Snacks That Won't Break the Calorie Bank]

Yet another study released this week found that more than half of kids with weight problems were already overweight by age 2. Ninety percent were overweight by age 5, and 25 percent had elevated BMIs at 3 months. This study, in Clinical Pediatrics, was very small, with just 184 children surveyed. But it should serve as a warning to parents who might think that baby fat is both adorable and something that children automatically outgrow.

After reading these two studies, I wish I could rethink the Valentine cupcake-making party I'm about to host. But tomorrow's another day, and you can be sure it's going to include some healthy treats and outdoor fun, or even swimming at the Y. What active fun does your family like best? Please share your strategies for getting everyone in the house to be more active.