Childhood Obesity: Are We Playing Russian Roulette With Our Kids Future?

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Andrea Collier Andrea King Collier is a freelance journalist and author with a focus on health and health policy. She is also a past Food and Community Policy Fellow. Her book Still With Me... A Daughter's Journey of Love and Loss was published by Simon and Schuster. Her book Black Woman's Guide to Black Men' s Health with co-author Willarda Edwards, M.D., was published by Warner Wellness.

Educators, policymakers and government officials have been working tirelessly to improve the academic achievement of America’s children at the local, state and national level. Yet drastic budget cuts, larger classroom sizes, a shortage of quality teachers and a failing physical infrastructure of aging school buildings all contribute to the challenges faced when addressing the improvement of our children’s academic success. There is no one size fits all solution for this very big problem.

And while most would agree that a healthy child is a better learner, few have considered the role that health, specifically, childhood obesity is playing poor student academic outcome. But there is a strong connection. This policy brief sheds light on the importance of policies that support physical activity and quality school food for all children, in the fight against childhood obesity with an eye on improving academic performance.

The Costs of Childhood Obesity

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are over 23 million children and adolescents who are overweight or obese in the United States.  Researchers project that approximately 30 percent of our children ages 2-19 are either obese or overweight. The obesity rate has more than quadrupled for children ages 6 to 11 and tripled for adolescents ages 12 to 19 over the past 40 years. This is a problem that has hit communities of color especially hard.

There is little question that childhood obesity in America has hit a tipping point. For the first time in U.S. history, this generation of children will be the first to live sicker and die younger than their parent’s generation, due to chronic disease caused by obesity.

The health impacts of childhood obesity are staggering, in terms of the financial and societal costs. Childhood obesity increases a child’s lifetime risk factors for a host of chronic health issues, including high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and stroke, asthma and some cancers. A child born in America in 2000 has an increased lifetime risk of being diagnosed with diabetes. Approximately 30 percent of boys and 40 percent of girls are at risk, with higher risks for Black, Hispanic and Native American children. And obese and overweight youth are more likely to have key risk factors for cardiovascular disease than their peers.

As this country looks to reduce healthcare costs, policymakers and legislators only need to look as far as our children. Childhood obesity alone is estimated to cost $14 billion annually in direct health expenses. Children who are covered under Medicaid account for $3 billion of those expenses. The average total health care expense for a child treated for obesity under Medicaid is $6,730, while the average health care costs for all children covered by Medicaid is $2,446. And the average total health care expenses for a child treated for obesity who is covered under private insurance is $3,743, while the average health cost for all children covered by private insurance is $1,108.

The question is not whether we can afford to invest in healthy options for our children. The question is how long can we afford to gamble with their health and wellbeing. As the old adage goes, pay a little now, or pay a lot later.

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