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Schoolchildren’s obesity legacy from Covid – UK study

Researchers say that lockdown measures during the Covid-19 pandemic have led to skyrocketing numbers of obese and overweight primary-schoolchildren in England, which could lead to additional healthcare costs costing millions of pounds over their lifespan.

Previous research found that children were at particular risk of weight gain in 2020-2021 as schools closed, organised sport was cancelled, and opportunities for physical recreation were curtailed.

Pandemic restrictions may also have caused a deterioration in healthy eating habits, disrupted sleep, and increased children’s screen time, said the team from the University of Southampton, which carried out the investigation.

The researchers used data on childhood BMI from the National Childhood Measurement Programme for children aged four to five-years-old (reception year at school) and those aged 10-11, who were finishing their primary education.

The analysis found that prevalence of overweight and obesity among the younger children rose from 9.9% in 2019-2020 to 14.4% in 2020-2021, and decreased to 10.1% in 2021-2022, returning to the pre-pandemic trend.

However, overweight and obesity prevalence in children aged 10-11 persisted and was 4% higher than expected. This increase meant that 55 838 more primary schoolchildren could have become overweight or obese during the pandemic, with 16 752 of those being severely obese, according to the research.

Disproportionate increase in poorer communities

The increase was twice as high among children from the most deprived areas of the country compared with the least deprived, with particularly high rates among those from black and south Asian backgrounds.

Study co-author Keith Godfrey, professor of epidemiology and human development at the University of Southampton, told Medscape: “We think that in the older children, the obesity is more embedded in that the health-related behaviours, which underlay the Covid-associated rise, were more persistent.

“So in younger children, they go back to better diets and more physical activity, whereas by the end of primary school, once the children have changed their behaviours, they are much less likely to revert to the previous healthier behaviours.”

The authors of the study, published in PLOS ONE, estimated that the additional healthcare cost for this cohort could amount to £800m for treatment of persistent obesity and other long-term conditions like type 2 diabetes, hypertension and coronary artery disease.

They said the wider costs to society could amount to £8.7bn.

“The NHS costs of obesity are about a fifth of the total costs to society through sickness absence, and all the rest of it that goes with it,” said Godfrey.

“Our data raise profound social justice, equity and financial concerns, with pressing implications for individuals, policymakers and UK society. Obesity prevalence in the most deprived areas of England is now more than double that in the least deprived and the gap has been widening over time.”

Study details

Projected health and economic effects of the increase in childhood obesity during the COVID-19 pandemic in England: The potential cost of inaction

Iván Ochoa-Moreno, Ravita Taheem, Mark Hanson, et al.

Published in PLOS ONE on 24 January 2024

Abstract

Background
The prevalence of overweight and obesity in young children rose sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here we estimate the potential future health and economic effects of these trends in England.

Methods
Using publicly available annual Body Mass Index (BMI) data from 2006–2022, we calculated the increase in overweight/obesity prevalence (BMI ≥85th reference percentile) during the Covid-19 pandemic among children aged 4–5 and 10–11, and variation by deprivation and ethnicity. We projected the impact of child BMI trends on adult health measures to estimate added lifelong medical and social costs.

Results
During 2020–2021 there were steep increases in overweight and obesity prevalence in children. By 2022, overweight and obesity prevalence in children aged 4–5 returned to expected levels based on pre-pandemic trends. However, overweight and obesity prevalence in children aged 10–11 persisted and was 4 percentage points (p<0.001) higher than expected, representing almost 56 000 additional children. The increase was twice as high in the most compared with the least deprived areas. The additional lifelong healthcare cost in this cohort will amount to £800 million with a cost to society of £8.7 billion. We did not find an increase in maternal obesity associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, however, prevalence grew faster in the post pandemic period.

Discussion
The return of overweight and obesity prevalence to pre-pandemic trends in children aged 4–5 provides a clear policy target for effective intervention to tackle this growing and serious population health concern.

 

PLOS ONE article – Projected health and economic effects of the increase in childhood obesity during the COVID-19 pandemic in England: The potential cost of inaction (Open access)

 

Medscape article – Pandemic Left Obesity Legacy Among Schoolchildren (Open access)

 

See more from MedicalBrief archives:

 

Diabetes in children peaks after Covid – Canadian study

 

UK got it wrong on COVID: Long lockdown did more harm than good

 

Possible link between Covid-19 and new-onset type 1 diabetes in children — small UK study

 

Parenting styles linked to children’s weight – UK study

 

 

 

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