Children's Health: Overweight and Sleep Deprived
Overweight children are far more likely to have sleep problems than previously thought, according to researchers at the Medical College of Georgia. One quarter of the overweight, inactive children enrolled in a study of diabetes risk turned out to have disordered sleep, as signaled by telltale snoring, compared with the 2 percent expected. The study was published in the November Obesity. The good news: Sleep problems were reduced by half after the children, ages 7 to 11, took part in three months of after-school exercise, which included basketball, jumping rope, soccer, and games of tag.
The children did not lose weight, but their body fat decreased. Having less fatty tissue in the neck may have created more room in the airway, thus improving the children's breathing during sleep. The overall improvement in the children's health as a result of the exercise may have improved the quality of their sleep as well, the researchers say.
Parents should be aware that snoring in children can signal significant sleep disturbances, says Catherine Davis, a clinical health psychologist and lead author of the study. What's more, Davis says, "Children who have difficulties with sleep do not appear sleepy." Rather, "they present as if they had mild ADHD," with inattentiveness and hyperactivity. "There's probably a lot more sleep disorder walking around that's diagnosed as ADHD."
It isn't yet clear that sleep disturbances cause ADHD, says Ronald Chervin, a neurologist and director of the sleep center at the University of Michigan Health System, but what is clear is that the two are linked in some children. He became interested in the subject in the mid-1990s when he noticed that some children coming to the sleep clinic who had ADHD no longer had symptoms after their sleep disorders were treated. In surveys of the general population, he found that children diagnosed with ADHD were three times more likely to have sleep problems than other children. He also found that children who had behavior and attention problems prior to having their tonsils and adenoids removed, a common treatment for breathing problems, had improved substantially one year after surgery. (Those results were published in the April Pediatrics.)
"I don't think that every child with hyperactivity needs a sleep study, but someone should ask the family a few simple sleep questions," says Chervin. The symptoms of sleep apnea, which deprives the brain of oxygen, and other forms of disturbed sleep aren't as obvious as they are in adults, he says. They include loud snoring, mouth breathing, sweating at night, and sleeping in odd positions, such as with the head tilted back.