Being plump does not equal being healthy!

Decreased nerve activity in overweight children.

A current clinical study of the Integrated Research and Treatment Center (IFB) AdiposityDiseases, the University Hospital as well as the Department of Neurology of the University of Leipzig showed that overweight and obese children and adolescents display a decreased activity of the autonomic nervous system. This part of the nervous system works autonomous, i.e. independently from will and consciousness.

The autonomic nervous system consists of the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous system; it is responsible for the nerval supply of the inner organs and regulates circulation, digestion, breathing or thermal cycling of the body. In order to test the autonomic nervous system heart, puplil and skin reactions of 90 overweight and obese children and adolescents and 59 normalweights between 7 and 18 years were tested. A decreased activity of the autonomic nervous system in the overweight and obese participants was displayed as is normally the case in diabetes patients whose nerves are damaged by long-term increased blood sugar levels. Disorders in blood sugar metabolism and/or diabetes have been excluded in the examined children pre-study, however.

The decreased nerve activity was especially shown in the pupil by delayed reactions towards changed lighting and in the heart by a decreased adaptability of heart frequency concerning rest and stress. How exactly this decreased activity is generated and whether the symptoms disappear once the young patients lose weight has not yet been clarified.

"The study shows that damages of the autonomic nervous system subtly start early in childhood, even before the blood sugar metabolism in obese children starts being impaired. So, contrary to popular parental belief, plump does not equal healthy, but it means that the kids are even sicker than we previously assumed," heads of the study Dr. Susann Blüher and Dr. Petra Baum explain. The study results (1) additionally indicate that an increasing degree of obesity leads to an increasing functional impairment of the autonomic nervous system. That is worrying since already 15 percent of children and adolescents in Germany are overweight and 6 percent even are obese.

Foloww-up studies will investigate how exactly the functional impairments are caused and were doctors can start therapeutically. More than ever the golden rule for parents applies to not allow their children becoming overweight in the first place. The belief that a plump child is cute and will eventually grow out of the excessive weight can not only be deceiving but also dangerous. Help for young obese patients and their parents can be found at the IFB outpatient clinic for children and youths at the University of Leipzig.

(1) Baum P, Petroff D, Classen J, Kiess W, Blüher S. Dysfunction of autonomic nervous system in childhood obesity: a cross-sectional study. PLoS One. 2013;8(1):e54546. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0054546. Epub 2013 Jan 24.

Keywords: children & youths, associated diseases, IFB-research