Link Between Childhood Obesity And Lower Math Performance

A new paper (just published online in Child Development) reports that kids who are obese have lower math scores over a 6-year period. Here are the essentials. 

Why is this study important? It focused on over 6,000 kids, tracking them from entry into kindergarten through 5th grade. Data were collected from kids, parents, and teachers. Math performance was assessed directly via testing. These are all strengths that improve confidence in the results.

What did they find? They focused on 3 groups of kids: 1) a group that was obese at entry into kindergarten; 2) a group that became obese over time; and 3) a group that was never classified as obese. Both the obese group and the group they became obese showed lower math performance over time – at 1st, 3rd, and 5th grades. These results held up after accounting for a number of other factors (individual and family) that could have contributed to the results.

Why would obesity influence math performance? The study also examined other factors that were shown to help explain the results. Especially important were concurrent emotional problems (internalizing symptoms) in the obese group and the group that became obese. These early signs of symptoms of depression and anxiety are known to impact academic performance, and it may be that the kids with weight issues become more withdrawn in the classroom. This was especially evident for girls, as they were also reported to show lower levels of interpersonal skills in school – which again partly explained the link between childhood obesity and lower math performance.

What’s the take-home message? Childhood obesity is known to carry a number of health risks that increase in the school years. Some studies – including this new one – suggest that it impacts kids’ academic and emotional functioning. The chain of events may be that as kids who suffer from obesity become more socially and emotionally withdrawn over time, this also leads to less engagement in the classroom. This is not the first study to observe a link between childhood obesity and academic performance, so it’s beginning to look like this may be a real phenomenon. Other factors – not considered in this study – may also be important. For example, the authors of the paper speculate that sleep problems may play a role as well, as they are linked with both obesity and academic performance. What’s troubling here is that the effects are observed during such critical learning years – from kindergarten through 5th grade. Children who suffer from obesity not only need intervention in order to prevent long-term health problems – it may be that they could profit from emotional support to help ensure that they stay engaged both socially and academically in school.

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