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Obesity in children: could sleep deprivation and technology use be partly to blame?

This research was completed on 31 January 2014

Published on 28 March 2011

Obesity is a major public health problem in the UK. A shocking one in six boys and one in seven girls aged two to fifteen are obese, putting them at risk of long-term health problems, including heart disease and diabetes.1,2 Researchers are investigating what is causing our obesity epidemic, looking at possible links with sleep deprivation and time spent using computers and other gadgets. If they identify links, then simple lifestyle changes might help children keep to a healthy weight.

What's the problem and who does it affect?

Worrying increases in childhood obesity

Obesity has reached shocking levels in children. Around 17 per cent of boys and 15 per cent of girls between the ages of two and 15 years are obese in the UK.1 Worldwide, the World Health Organization estimates that rates of obesity in children have tripled during the last 20 years.3

Obesity puts children at risk of eventually developing serious, long-term health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, breathing disorders during sleep and some cancers. Many obese children grow into overweight adults, when ongoing weight problems can shorten life expectancy.2,3 

Obesity can also have a significant impact on a child’s day-to-day life. Obese children are more likely to suffer bullying, discrimination, low self-esteem and poor body image. This sort of psychological stress can hinder children’s progress at school and damage their friendships, sometimes making them feel isolated. It can even cause depression.

Obesity seriously affects children’s physical and mental wellbeing. It has reached epidemic levels, bringing important consequences for the NHS and society as a whole. We urgently need to find out more about the complex factors that cause obesity in children, so that this serious condition can be prevented and treated more effectively.

What is the project trying to achieve?

What causes obesity in adolescence?

The researchers for the Midlands Adolescent Schools Sleep Education Study (MASSES) are investigating why so many children and adolescents are becoming obese these days. They are building on preliminary evidence, which suggests that adolescents who do not get enough sleep might be at risk of becoming obese and of underperforming in their school work. Evidence also suggests that the more time adolescents spend using high-tech equipment, such as computers, mobile phones and games consoles, the less likely they are to get enough sleep.

The researchers are recruiting around 800 11-12 year olds from nine secondary schools in the Midlands. They are following the children for three years, gathering data that will help answer two key questions:

Once a year, the children complete a 7-day sleep diary and questionnaires about their sleeping patterns, their progress through puberty and their use of technology. They also wear wrist actigraphs for one-week periods. These watch-like devices monitor sleep patterns by detecting movement. The children’s height and weight is being measured and information on academic performance collected.

What are the researchers' credentials?

Project LeaderDr S Taheri MSc PhD
Project team
  • Teresa Arora
LocationDiabetes Centre, Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust, Birmingham Heartlands Hospital and Birmingham University
DurationThree years
Grant awarded19 November 2010
Start date1 February 2011
End date31 January 2014
Grant amount£138,762.00
Grant codeSP4609, GN1785

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The project leader, Dr Shahrad Taheri, is internationally recognised for research into the effects of sleep and obesity on the health of both children and adults. His team were the first to show a relationship between sleep duration and obesity in a large population of adults, while demonstrating that alterations in appetite hormones could mediate this relationship.4

Dr Taheri’s team has long-standing relationships with several schools in the Midlands, a region that has one of the UK's highest levels of childhood obesity. In some areas of the Midlands, about a quarter of 11-12 year olds are obese.5 The team’s close collaboration with children, parents, and teachers will boost understanding of what contributes to obesity in adolescence and what sort of consequences it brings.

The team has recently been recognised with an award from the UK Association for Obesity (ASO). Dr Taheri’s PhD student, Teresa Arora, was named ASO student of the year for her work on this important pilot study. Teresa Arora’s exciting work is continuing thanks to this funding by Action Medical Research.

Who stands to benefit from this research and how?

Taking on the obesity epidemic

The researchers aim to help tackle obesity in children and adolescents. This study should give us a better understanding of the relationship between obesity, sleep deprivation, academic performance and use of high-tech equipment, such as computers, games consoles and mobile phones.

Results of this study could help define how straightforward changes in lifestyle might help tackle obesity. The researchers envisage that their findings might be useful for widespread health education campaigns. They could be used, for example, to give advice on how much sleep adolescents need as they go through puberty.

The World Health Organization has described childhood obesity as ‘one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century’.6 New strategies that tackle obesity could have the potential to bring lifelong benefits – perhaps enhancing children’s quality of life, boosting their self confidence and academic performance, and reducing their chances of developing serious illnesses, such as heart disease and diabetes.

References

  1. The NHS Information Centre, Lifestyles Statistics. Statistics on obesity, physical activity and diet: England, 2010. 10 February 2010. Website accessed January 2011. http://www.ic.nhs.uk/pubs/opad10
  2. NHS Choices. Your health, your choices. Obesity – information prescription. Last reviewed: 25/02/2010. Website accessed: January 2011. http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Obesity/Pages/Introduction.aspx
  3. World Health Organization. Nutrition. Facts and Figures. Website accessed March 2011. http://www.euro.who.int/en/what-we-do/health-topics/disease-prevention/nutrition/facts-and-figures
  4. Taheri S,Lin L,Austin D,Young T,Mignot E. Short sleep duration is associated with reduced leptin, elevated ghrelin, and increased body mass index. PLoS Med 2004; 1(3):e62
  5. NHS National Child Measurement Programme: England, 2009/10 school year. Website accessed March 2011. http://www.ic.nhs.uk/statistics-and-data-collections/health-and-lifestyles/obesity/national-child-measurement-programme-england-2009-10-school-year
  6. World Health Organization. Obesity. Website accessed March 2011. http://www.euro.who.int/en/what-we-do/health-topics/diseases-and-conditions/obesity