The Ear Infection/Fat Connection
Yesterday The Checkup looked at research suggesting that MSG can make you fat.
Today's culprit? Ear infections.
On rare occasion, science moves forward in big, decisive steps. But more often it's a piling up of small, even obscure-seeming discoveries that may help us better understand how our bodies work -- and that sometimes strike us as obscure, or even bizarre.
At first blush, a connection between common childhood ear infections and adult overweight does seem kind of bizarre. But research presented at the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society earlier this week adds to a growing suspicion that repeated childhood ear infections may indeed contribute to obesity and overweight.
Ear infections can damage the nerve that carries taste sensations from the rear portion of the tongue to the brain, according to Derek J. Snyder, a doctoral student in neuroscience at Yale University who worked on the study along with lead researcher Linda Bartoshuk, a professor at the University of Florida's College of Dentistry. That damage can change the way a person tastes food, Snyder suggests, and steer him toward preferring foods that feel good in the mouth such as ice cream and other high-fat dairy products.
Snyder and colleagues looked at the food preferences of 245 adults who'd had ear infections when they were little and 1,055 folks who hadn't. The former tended to really dig creamy, fat-filled foods; they also tend to be more overweight than those who hadn't suffered childhood ear infections.
Snyder says this study is the fourth to link ear infections to overweight. While more research remains to be done, he says (and he intends to do it), he speculates that early treatment of ear infections could possibly keep some people from growing up fat.
That could add an interesting new wrinkle to the ongoing debate about treating ear infections with antibiotics. Because many cases resolve themselves after a week or so, a few days' "watchful waiting" while managing pain is the current recommended treatment for many kids over six months. That approach is in keeping with efforts to reduce antibiotic use so as to curb bacteria's developing resistance to front-line medications. But what if we knew that by not treating an ear infection we risked setting our kid up to be overweight?
It is quite possible that early diagnosis and treatment of ear infections may prevent obesity in some people. That said, it is important to remember three things. First, ear infections are so common because they have many different causes (so responses to a particular treatment may vary), which presents a significant public health challenge. Second, ear infections represent one of many factors related to obesity, so we need to develop a greater understanding of how these factors work together to increase intake and body mass. Finally, we are just beginning to explore this effect in detail, so it is possible that ear infections influence body mass only in certain groups of people. Further study should clarify these issues, but at the very least, we have found a potentially important contribution to long-term obesity risk, one that may be preventable.
Snyder hopes to publish the findings within the next six months. As the mother of a kid who lived for years on amoxicillin, going from one ear infection to the next, I'll be watching with interest -- and keeping on eye on the ice-cream carton.
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