Could a childhood infection trigger obesity?
Provocative new research published today in the journal Pediatrics adds weight to the growing body of evidence that obesity isn't only a matter of behavior or genetics.
Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine checked 124 kids (median age 13.6 years) for the presence of antibodies to a virus known as AD36, an adenovirus that can cause upper respiratory tract or gastrointestinal illness and that has been associated in earlier studies with obesity. Sixty-seven of the kids were obese, and 57 were not.
They found evidence of such antibodies in 19 children altogether. Of those children, 15 -- or 78 percent -- were obese. Moreover, AD36 antibodies were more common among the obese children (15 out of 67) than in those who were not obese (4 of 57). Finally, the children who had AD36 antibodies were, on average, nearly 50 pounds heavier than those without the antibody.
The findings come at a time when the medical community and others are struggling to understand why the prevalence of childhood obesity has tripled over the past 30 years. From the study:
Numerous studies have shown an increased risk for obesity to be associated with feeding behavior such as skipping breakfast or sedentary behavior such as the amount of time spent watching television, although a direct cause-and-effect relationship between such environmental factors and childhood obesity remains unproven. Moreover, it is unclear why some children are more vulnerable to an "obesigenic" environment. If obesity is not caused only by dietary excess coupled with decreased activity, then it is necessary to identify other etiologic factors. Genes play an important role in the risk for obesity but cannot explain the rapid change in its prevalence.
The study lists a number of potential ways in which infection with AD36 could promote obesity, but that mechanism remains poorly understood and needs much more research.
The authors make clear that the presence of AD36 antibodies in obese children does not constitute a cause-and-effect relationship; in fact, the authors note that obese children could have weakened immune systems that make them more vulnerable to such viruses, among other potential scenarios.
But should such a causal relationship be established, the link between AD36 and obesity could open up new avenues of preventing and maybe treating obesity. It could also, as the study notes, make life a bit easier for kids who are obese:
Obese children suffer severe stigmatization, contributing to feelings of social rejection and lessened self-worth. Negativity towards their condition can ostracize both obese children and their families. The possibility that excess weight gain in some children may be due to a viral infection could alter the public debate and perceptions regarding childhood obesity.
That alone would be a good thing, in and of itself.
Jennifer LaRue Huget
| September 20, 2010; 12:00 AM ET
Categories: Childhood obesity, Kids' health, Nutrition and Fitness, Obesity
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