By Rachael Myers Lowe
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - The young children of moms abused by their partners are at increased risk of being obese, a new study from Massachusetts finds.
The more often the abuse occurs, the higher the risk that pre-school children, especially girls, will be obese and, as a result, at increased risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other illnesses later in life, the study team notes.
"It's always sobering to see the vast impact that adversities in early life can have on long term health outcomes," lead investigator Dr. Renee Boynton-Jarrett of Boston University School of Medicine told Reuters Health.
Ties between exposure to adversities in childhood and long-lasting emotional and health problems in adulthood have been established in numerous studies. This is the first study, the investigators say, suggesting a possible connection between violence directed against mothers and obesity in young children.
Boynton-Jarrett and colleagues studied 1,595 children born between 1998 and 2000. The children's mothers were interviewed when the children were born and up until they reached age 5. The children's height and weight was measured at age 3 and age 5. Most of the children were born to unmarried parents.
By the time the children were 5 years old, nearly half (788 or 49.4 percent) had been exposed to family violence and 263 children (16.5 percent) were obese, meaning their body mass index (BMI) was higher than 95% of other children their age and sex in the general population.
By comparison, in the general population in 2005-2006, 11 percent of children age 2 to 5 were defined as overweight, a lower standard than obese.
Boynton-Jarrett's team found that children whose mothers reported being chronically abused by a partner were 80 percent more likely to be obese at age 5, compared to children whose mothers reported no abuse.
The association between exposure to domestic violence and obesity was stronger in girls than boys, and also among kids whose mothers said they lived in "less safe" neighborhoods, the study team notes in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
Studies have shown that childhood weight may be influenced by a number of factors including diet, time spent watching television, weight at birth, mother's depression, and smoking during pregnancy. The study team took all these factors into account and found the association between obesity and exposure to domestic violence persisted.
"These findings are absolutely applicable across socioeconomic populations," Boynton-Jarrett told Reuters Health, pointing out that her team controlled for education and other socioeconomic factors.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, domestic violence is a "serious problem" in the US; nearly five million women are victims of domestic violence every year. It's estimated that 3 to 10 million children witness these attacks annually.
Interventions to prevent obesity "must consider the impact of family violence" on the risk of obesity risk, the investigators say. Domestic violence and childhood obesity prevention programs should be designed to work in tandem, they conclude.
"If we can marry the two efforts in some respects, we might be doing a better job of preventing early onset of childhood obesity," Boynton-Jarrett said. Improving community safety may also help reduce childhood obesity.
Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, June 2010.