Obesity rates fall for young children, rise for older adults

While adults and older children continue to struggle with obesity, America’s 2- to 5-year-olds appear to be slimming down.

The prevalence of obesity among children in the preschool set has fallen from nearly 14 percent in 2003 and 2004 to 8.4 percent in 2011 and 2012. That’s a 43 percent decline, according new survey data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I was kind of excited to see this decrease in the young children and this potential for good news in the story,” said Cynthia L. Ogden, a Maryland-based CDC epidemiologist and branch chief for the survey.

Much of the decline among young children ages 2-5 occurred over the final two years of the study, as their obesity rates fell roughly 33 percent – from just over 12 percent in 2009-2010 to just over 8 percent in 2011-2012.

But one in three U.S. adults – 33 percent – and one in six, or 17 percent, of all young people ages 2-19 are still considered obese, according to the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which appears in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

In fact, obesity rates for older adults increased from 31 percent in 2003-2004 to 35.4 percent in 2011-2012. Women age 60 and older fueled the increase, with obesity rates jumping from 31.5 percent in 2003-2004 to 38.1 percent in 2011-2012, the survey found.

The authors concluded that “obesity prevalence remains high and thus it is important to continue surveillance.”

Overweight people are at higher risk to develop a number of chronic diseases compared with people whose weight is normal. Obesity is linked to numerous health problems, including premature death, heart disease and stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, osteoarthritis and gall bladder disease.

In recent years, schools, restaurants, food and beverage manufacturers and medical caregivers have paid greater attention to the health threat posed by obesity and have tried to combat the problem through public awareness campaigns.

But what’s behind the falling obesity rates for toddlers is unclear. The CDC said it could reflect efforts by child care centers to improve nutrition and physical activity standards, as well as a decline in consumption of sugar-sweetened soft drinks and other beverages.

Increased breastfeeding rates also could be helping, since the activity helps stave off obesity in breastfed children, the CDC reported.

Obesity prevention programs in cities like Anchorage, Alaska, Philadelphia and New York City, as well as King County in the Seattle area, could also be playing a role.

First lady Michelle Obama, whose “Let’s Move!” program works to increase physical activity among America’s youngsters, hailed the survey’s latest findings.

“I am thrilled at the progress we’ve made over the last few years in obesity rates among our youngest Americans,” Obama said in a statement. “With the participation of kids, parents and communities in ‘Let’s Move!’ these last four years, healthier habits are beginning to become the new norm.”

On Tuesday, the first lady proposed a ban on the marketing of junk food and sodas in schools. Jeffrey Levi, executive director of Trust for America’s Health, a nonpartisan public health advocacy group, said the proposal would go a long way toward keeping America’s youngsters slim.

“The best strategy to lower obesity rates is to help our children establish healthier habits while they are young, including good nutrition and increased activity,” Levi said in a statement. “By limiting the marketing of junk food in schools, we can help even out that equation.”

CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden was also optimistic.

“We continue to see signs that for some children in this country, the scales are tipping,” he said. “This report comes on the heels of previous CDC data that found a significant decline in obesity prevalence among low-income children – ages 2-4 – participating in federal nutrition programs. . . . This confirms that at least for kids, we can turn the tide and begin to reverse the obesity epidemic.”