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Youth Obesity 'Substantially Decreases' for Massachusetts Children

Has the U.S. begun to turn the tide against its childhood-obesity epidemic?

The childhood-obesity rate in Massachusetts "substantially decreased among both boys and girls" younger than 6 between 2004 and 2008, according to a study published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

Researchers at the Boston-based Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute used data from the "Collecting Electronic Nutrition Trajectory Data Using e-Records of Youth Study" to investigate medical records of 36,827 children from birth to age 5 between 1999 and 2008.

From 1999 to 2003, the researchers discovered that the risk of obesity stayed relatively stable for both boys and girls younger than 6. Roughly 10.5 percent of boys and between 7.7 percent and 8.2 percent of girls were considered obese during this time period.

However, in the next five-year period, they observed substantial decreases in the risk of obesity among both boys and girls. Boys dropped from a 10.5 percent obesity rate in 2003 to 8.9 percent in 2008, while girls plummeted from 9.0 percent in 2004 to 6.4 percent in 2008.

The researchers hypothesize that increased breastfeeding, a reduction of maternal smoking during pregnancy, and changes in advertising of sugary snacks to children could all have played a role in the decline, though they say none can be known for certain.

Notably, children insured by non-Medicaid health-insurance plans had a much steeper drop in obesity rates compared with their peers insured by Medicaid. Obesity prevalence in Medicaid-insured children fell from 12.3 percent in 2004 to 11.5 percent in 2008, a drop of 6.2 percentage points overall, while non-Medicaid-insured children plummeted from a 10.4 percent obesity rate in 2004 to 8.3 percent in 2008, a decline of 17.3 percentage points.

Such a disparity suggests "that the coming years may see a widening of socioeconomic disparities in childhood obesity," the study authors conclude.

"There's a subgroup population of kids who don't seem to be experiencing the same benefit of positive movement as others," said Dr. Lauren Smith, the Massachusetts public-health department's medical director, to the Boston Globe. "We have to always be cognizant and cautious that interventions that we're doing are equitably distributed across all populations at risk so we don't exacerbate disparities."

How do the Massachusetts' findings line up with other states'? A study released earlier this year found that California students were still gradually growing more obese, though the rate of increase had slowed from prior years. But in New York City K-8 public schools, the obesity rate has decreased 5.5 percent since the 2006-07 school year, according to a study released in January.

The evidence continues to build that the U.S. may be nearing a tipping point in terms of stemming the expansion of the youth-obesity crisis, but plenty of work remains.

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