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A whopping 57 percent of the nation's children and teens will be obese by age 35 if current trends continue, according to a sobering new study.
The research, published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, goes beyond previous studies suggesting unhealthy childhood weights often lead to adult obesity. It suggests that while heavy children face the highest risk, even those who make it to age 20 in good shape face substantial peril in a world where obesity could soon be the new normal.
"This study is the first to make precise predictions for today's generation of children," and the news is not good, said lead author Zachary Ward, a researcher at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The findings, he said, show the need for stepped-up prevention effortsthrough young adulthood.
The current adult obesity rate stands at a record 39.8 percent. The rate in children and teens is 18.5 percent. Adult obesity is linked with health problems including diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
The research relies on weight trend data from several studies that tracked individuals over time. The researchers used that data to create a model that projects what will happen to today's children if current trends persist.
The study does not look at underlying causes, but suggests that risks start accumulating early.
For example, a severely obese 5-year-old faces an 89 percent risk of midlife obesity; a normal-weight peer has a 53 percent risk. At 19, a severely obese teen faces a 94 percent risk of being obese at 35; a normal-weight peer has a 30 percent risk.
The study is based on "a sophisticated statistical analysis technique that relies on certain assumptions, and those assumptions can be challenged," said Stephen Daniels, chairman of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. "But I think the assumptions ... and their conclusions are pretty reasonable and, unfortunately, pretty scary."
Daniels, who was not involved in the study, said the findings reflect "profound changes in physical activity and diet." It's easier, he said, for kids and parents to choose "high-calorie, low-nutrient" foods and drinks than healthy ones.
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