January 31, 2012

Cornell Study Links Childhood Stress to Adulthood Obesity

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Childhood stress may be connected to an increased risk of obesity later in life, according to a study published by a Cornell professor in January.

The recent study, published in the Journal of Pediatrics by Prof. Gary Evans, design and environmental analysis and human development, argues that stress could be the underlying cause of obesity. Encountering problems such as poverty and family tension may make it difficult for children and teenagers to self-regulate, or control their own emotions and behavior, in turn leading them to increased consumption of fatty and sugary foods.

The link between chronic stress and the inability to control one’s impulses may have a neurological basis, according to Evans. The study finds evidence suggesting that some parts of the brain especially vulnerable to stress early in life are also involved in self-regulatory behavior.

Evans measured the heights and weights of 244 nine-year-old children who had been exposed to high-levels of stress. Some of the children, for instance, had histories of enduring domestic violence.

After measuring the children again four years later, Evans found that, compared to children with healthy home lives and financial stability, those exposed to stress were also more likely to be heavier than their peers.

“We are continuing to follow [the children] as they get older,” Evans said. “For a subset of them, we are going to be doing neuro-imaging so we can take a look at the issue and further determine if there is some brain mechanism involved.”

Evans also tested his theory by giving the children a choice between eating a small plate of candy and waiting to eat a larger plate.

The procedure for this experiment is similar to that of Walter Mischel’s 1968 “Marshmallow Task,” which tested children’s ability to wait to eat one marshmallow in order to be rewarded with two.

Mischel also found that children’s ability to self-regulate was a powerful indicator of success in later life, bringing higher SAT scores, IQ scores and high school graduation rates.

Original Author: Elizabeth Kussman