Obesity spiked in children during COVID-19 lockdowns—only the youngest bounced back

Obesity among UK primary school kids spiked during the COVID-19 lockdowns, according to international researchers who estimate that without reversals, increased obesity rates in Year 6 children alone will cost society an additional £800 million in healthcare. Using data from three long-term studies, the team compared BMI before, during and after the pandemic among children in their first and last years of primary school, and modelled the impact of these BMI trends on adult health outcomes and costs. They found a 45% increase in obesity in children aged 4-5, and similar effects in Year 6 children. The increase was twice as high in the most deprived areas of England. Younger age groups bounced back more easily after the pandemic, and the team says this indicates obesity is very challenging in older age groups and that policies targeting younger children could have promise. 

Funder: MH is supported by European Union Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme under grant agreement No. 733206. KMG is supported by the UK Medical Research Council (MC_UU_12011/4), the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR Senior Investigator (NF-SI-0515-10042) and NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre (IS-BRC-1215-20004)), the European Union (Erasmus+ Programme ImpENSA 598488-EPP-1-2018-1-DE-EPPKA2-CBHE-JP), British Heart Foundation (RG/15/17/3174, SP/F/21/150013) and the US National Institute On Aging of the National Institutes of Health (Award No. U24AG047867). For the purpose of Open Access, the author has applied a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licence to any Author Accepted Manuscript version arising from this submission. KWT is supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) through the Southampton Biomedical Research Centre (BRC). RT is funded by NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Studentship.

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From: PLOS

Peer-reviewed                                              Observational study                                                    People

Obesity spiked in children during COVID-19 lockdowns—only the youngest bounced back

BMI data from over 1 million children in England indicates high lifetime costs to society of post-pandemic obesity rates

Obesity among primary school children in the UK spiked during the COVID-19 lockdown, with a 45% increase between 2019/20 and 2020/21 among 4-5-year-olds, according to a study published on January 24, 2024 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Iván Ochoa-Moreno from the University of Southampton, UK, and colleagues. The authors estimated that without reversals, increased obesity rates in Year 6 children alone will cost society an additional £800 million in healthcare.

During the first year of the pandemic, school closures dramatically altered the routines of young children. Cancellation of organized sports, disrupted sleep schedules, more screen time, and deterioration of healthy eating habits likely contributed to the largest single-year increase in overweight and obesity prevalence seen in children in decades. To better understand the long-term health and economic costs of rising obesity rates in young children, the authors of the study compared Body Mass Index (BMI) data from England’s National Childhood Measurement Programme (NCMP) before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic among children in their first and last years of primary school (aged 4-5 and 10-11 years old). Using data from two additional longitudinal cohorts in the UK, they modeled the impact of these BMI trends on adult health outcomes and costs.

The researchers observed a 45% increase in obesity prevalence during 2020-2021 in children between 4-5 years old, and a similar effect in Year 6 children. This increase was twice as high in the most deprived areas of England. While the number of overweight and obese 4-5 year olds returned to pre-pandemic levels the following year, the increases seen in older children persisted into 2022. The study estimated that this group of children will cost society an additional £800 million in healthcare, for conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease, over their lifetimes. 

The researchers state that the persistence of weight gain in older children suggests that reversing obesity is very challenging in older age groups, while the quick reversal to pre-pandemic levels in young children highlights the promise of policies targeting children under five as a strategy to tackle obesity.

One of the study’s authors, Professor Keith Godfrey, adds: “The sharp increase in childhood obesity during the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates the profound impacts on children’s development. Alongside the escalating costs of the ongoing epidemic of childhood obesity, it is clear that more radical new policy measures are required to reduce obesity and secure wellbeing and prosperity for the country as a whole.”

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