Children with intellectual disabilities more likely to be obese, study finds

15 August 2016

Obesity rates among children with learning difficulties are higher and rise faster than children without these disabilities, according to findings from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS).

The proportion of children with intellectual disabilities who were obese rose from 15 per cent at age 5, to 31 per cent at age 11 – an increase of 16 percentage points. Obesity among children without learning difficulties only increased by 9 percentage points over the same period.

Researchers from Lancaster University examined information on more than 18,000 children taking part in MCS, who were born across the UK in 2000-01. They compared measures of body mass index (BMI) for children with and without intellectual disabilities when they were 5, 7 and 11 years old. Children were considered as having an intellectual disability if they scored significantly below average on cognitive assessments at age 7, or if their parents reported they had been receiving support for learning difficulties.

At ages 5 and 7, the risk of being obese was only greater for boys with intellectual disabilities, not girls. However, by age 11, both boys and girls with learning difficulties faced the increased risk – nearly a third of children with intellectual disabilities were obese, compared to around one fifth of those without such impairments.

The researchers estimated that children with intellectual disabilities accounted for 5-6 per cent of all obese children. Public Health England has said that approximately 3 per cent of the child population of England have an intellectual disability.

Among all children, those who were obese at an early age were up to 11 times more likely to still be obese later in childhood. Interestingly, children with intellectual disabilities were no more or less likely to be persistently obese than their peers.

Children whose mothers were persistently obese or who had fewer qualifications were more likely to be obese than those whose mothers were more educated and maintained a healthy weight.

Read the full paper

Obesity in British children with and without intellectual disability: cohort study by Eric Emerson, Janet Robertson, Susannah Baines and Chris Hatton was published in BMC Public Health in July 2016.

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