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Childhood obesity rates higher in Athens County

Study correlates obesity with school meals, television and living with smokers


By Angelina Young

January 22, 2010 


A study conducted by researchers at the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine (OU-COM) found that 21 percent of children in Athens County are obese, compared to the national average of 16 percent. The study was printed this fall in the international publication, Journal of Rural and Remote Health.


The problem was more pervasive in boys than girls—23 percent more male children were overweight than female children. The study also shows that overweight children were more likely to eat meals at school, watch television and live with a caregiver who smokes cigarettes. Other research studies have shown that obesity in boys is associated with watching three to five hours of television per day.

Because obesity means a higher risk for diabetes, hypertension, and cardiac problems, this study has major implications for overall health rates in Southeastern Ohio, according to lead researcher Karen Montgomery-Reagan, D.O., OU-COM assistant professor of pediatrics and University Medical Associates pediatrician.


“My love in life is watching the little ones grow into healthy, independent young adults.  As the years in my profession have passed, I realized that children were becoming too heavy for their young age,” said Montgomery-Reagan. “It became apparent that the children, parents and schools were not being educated about healthy choices in nutrition.”


Montgomery-Reagan worked with researchers from the college and its statewide consortium of teaching hospitals--the Centers for Osteopathic Research and Education (CORE)--for this two-year study tracking the body mass index (BMI) of Athens County elementary school children six to 11 years old. 


“I wasn’t surprised to learn that rural children were significantly more overweight than kids in the rest of the nation; this is something that health care providers have observed in many other rural regions,” said Joseph Bianco, Ph.D., a research scientist in OU-COM’s Department of Geriatric Medicine/Gerontology.


“I was surprised, however, to see that obesity was far more prevalent in local boys than girls. It was unsettling to see many of our local children enter elementary school already overweight, or at risk for (becoming) overweight,” Bianco said.


Through the CORE, family practice physicians Jean Rettos, D.O. (’04), and Rebecca Huston, D.O. (’04), with the help of students and ancillary medical personnel, conducted a county-wide BMI screening of children six to 11 years old in Athens County. The height and weight of each student in all 11 Athens County elementary schools was measured three times between 2006 and 2007. Children were classified as underweight, normal weight, at risk (for becoming overweight) or overweight (obese) based on their BMI. 


“The school lunch and breakfast may be the only meals some children receive, and if they are not healthy, then I expect school lunch programs assist in making our children overweight.  A surprise was a smoking caregiver was more likely to have overweight children than normal weight children,” said Montgomery-Reagan.


The CORE helped to fund the study by purchasing supplies and awarding grants to Rettos and Huston, who were CORE residents during the time of the screenings. Rettos now practices at Athens Health Solutions in Athens and Huston works with Team Health at O’Bleness Memorial Hospital.  


The CORE research office and OU-COM’s Office of Research and Grants also assisted with data analysis, interpretation and editorial support, according to Grace Brannan, Ph.D., director of CORE Research. Victor Heh, Ph.D., a biostatistician in the OU-COM Office of Research and Grants, analyzed the data,  provided weekly statistical advice and guidance, and assisted in the interpretation of the findings. 


Each Athens county school was given a copy of the results of the study, including national averages and the final paper written by the researchers. 


“There is a need for healthier school breakfasts and lunches, exercise and nutrition education,” Montgomery-Reagan said. “Also, it appears that we need to reach the preschool child and parents to catch the toddler before we have to be concerned about increased weight.”

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