Ken Ong and colleagues genotyped children from the ALSPAC birth cohort and showed an association between greater early infancy gains in weight and length and genetic markers for adult obesity risk.
Genome-wide studies have identified several common genetic variants that are robustly associated with adult obesity risk. Exploration of these genotype associations in children may provide insights into the timing of weight changes leading to adult obesity.
Methods and Findings
Children from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) birth cohort were genotyped for ten genetic variants previously associated with adult BMI. Eight variants that showed individual associations with childhood BMI (in/near: FTO, MC4R, TMEM18, GNPDA2, KCTD15, NEGR1, BDNF, and ETV5) were used to derive an “obesity-risk-allele score” comprising the total number of risk alleles (range: 2–15 alleles) in each child with complete genotype data (n = 7,146). Repeated measurements of weight, length/height, and body mass index from birth to age 11 years were expressed as standard deviation scores (SDS). Early infancy was defined as birth to age 6 weeks, and early infancy failure to thrive was defined as weight gain between below the 5th centile, adjusted for birth weight. The obesity-risk-allele score showed little association with birth weight (regression coefficient: 0.01 SDS per allele; 95% CI 0.00–0.02), but had an apparently much larger positive effect on early infancy weight gain (0.119 SDS/allele/year; 0.023–0.216) than on subsequent childhood weight gain (0.004 SDS/allele/year; 0.004–0.005). The obesity-risk-allele score was also positively associated with early infancy length gain (0.158 SDS/allele/year; 0.032–0.284) and with reduced risk of early infancy failure to thrive (odds ratio = 0.92 per allele; 0.86–0.98; p = 0.009).
The use of robust genetic markers identified greater early infancy gains in weight and length as being on the pathway to adult obesity risk in a contemporary birth cohort.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
The proportion of overweight and obese children is increasing across the globe. In the US, the Surgeon General estimates that, compared with 1980, twice as many children and three times the number of adolescents are now overweight. Worldwide, 22 million children under five years old are considered by the World Health Organization to be overweight.
Being overweight or obese in childhood is associated with poor physical and mental health. In addition, childhood obesity is considered a major risk factor for adult obesity, which is itself a major risk factor for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and other chronic conditions.
The most commonly used measure of whether an adult is a healthy weight is body mass index (BMI), defined as weight in kilograms/(height in metres)2. However, adult categories of obese (>30) and overweight (>25) BMI are not directly applicable to children, whose BMI naturally varies as they grow. BMI can be used to screen children for being overweight and or obese but a diagnosis requires further information.
Why Was This Study Done?
As the numbers of obese and overweight children increase, a corresponding rise in future numbers of overweight and obese adults is also expected. This in turn is expected to lead to an increasing incidence of poor health. As a result, there is great interest among health professionals in possible pathways between childhood and adult obesity. It has been proposed that certain periods in childhood may be critical for the development of obesity.
In the last few years, ten genetic variants have been found to be more common in overweight or obese adults. Eight of these have also been linked to childhood BMI and/or obesity. The authors wanted to identify the timing of childhood weight changes that may be associated with adult obesity. Knowledge of obesity risk genetic variants gave them an opportunity to do so now, without following a set of children to adulthood.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The authors analysed data gathered from a subset of 7,146 singleton white European children enrolled in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) study, which is investigating associations between genetics, lifestyle, and health outcomes for a group of children in Bristol whose due date of birth fell between April 1991 and December 1992. They used knowledge of the children's genetic makeup to find associations between an obesity risk allele score—a measure of how many of the obesity risk genetic variants a child possessed—and the children's weight, height, BMI, levels of body fat (at nine years old), and rate of weight gain, up to age 11 years.
They found that, at birth, children with a higher obesity risk allele score were not any heavier, but in the immediate postnatal period they were less likely to be in the bottom 5% of the population for weight gain (adjusted for birthweight), often termed “failure to thrive.” At six weeks of age, children with a higher obesity risk allele score tended to be longer and heavier, even allowing for weight at birth.
After six weeks of age, the obesity risk allele score was not associated with any further increase in length/height, but it was associated with a more rapid weight gain between birth and age 11 years. BMI is derived from height and weight measurements, and the association between the obesity risk allele score and BMI was weak between birth and age three-and-a-half years, but after that age the association with BMI increased rapidly. By age nine, children with a higher obesity risk allele score tended to be heavier and taller, with more fat on their bodies.
What Do These Findings Mean?
The combined obesity allele risk score is associated with higher rates of weight gain and adult obesity, and so the authors conclude that weight gain and growth even in the first few weeks after birth may be the beginning of a pathway of greater adult obesity risk.
A study that tracks a population over time can find associations but it cannot show cause and effect. In addition, only a relatively small proportion (1.7%) of the variation in BMI at nine years of age is explained by the obesity risk allele score.
The authors' method of finding associations between childhood events and adult outcomes via genetic markers of risk of disease as an adult has a significant advantage: the authors did not have to follow the children themselves to adulthood, so their findings are more likely to be relevant to current populations. Despite this, this research does not yield advice for parents how to reduce their children's obesity risk. It does suggest that “failure to thrive” in the first six weeks of life is not simply due to a lack of provision of food by the baby's caregiver but that genetic factors also contribute to early weight gain and growth.
The study looked at the combined obesity risk allele score and the authors did not attempt to identify which individual alleles have greater or weaker associations with weight gain and overweight or obesity. This would require further research based on far larger numbers of babies and children. The findings may also not be relevant to children in other types of setting because of the effects of different nutrition and lifestyles.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000284.
Further information is available on the ALSPAC study
The UK National Health Service and other partners provide guidance on establishing a healthy lifestyle for children and families in their Change4Life programme
The International Obesity Taskforce is a global network of expertise and the advocacy arm of the International Association for the Study of Obesity. It works with the World Health Organization, other NGOs, and stakeholders and provides information on overweight and obesity
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US provide guidance and tips on maintaining a healthy weight, including BMI calculators in both metric and Imperial measurements for both adults and children. They also provide BMI growth charts for boys and girls showing how healthy ranges vary for each sex at with age
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health provides growth charts for weight and length/height from birth to age 4 years that are based on WHO 2006 growth standards and have been adapted for use in the UK
The CDC Web site provides information on overweight and obesity in adults and children, including definitions, causes, and data
The CDC also provide information on the role of genes in causing obesity.
The World Health Organization publishes a fact sheet on obesity, overweight and weight management, including links to childhood overweight and obesity
Wikipedia includes an article on childhood obesity (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)