Being obese as a child increases the risk of dying before you reach 55, says a study published Wednesday, a day after US First Lady Michelle Obama launched a program to fight childhood obesity amid warnings it is shortening lives.
Out of 4,857 non-diabetic Native American children aged five to 20 who took part in the study, which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 166 died before they reached the age of 55 of disease or self-inflicted injury such as alcohol intoxication or drug use -- called "endogenous causes".
The rate of death from endogenous causes among those who were obese as children was twice that among those who were slim children, the study said.
The authors of the study gave a dire warning that "the rising global prevalence of obesity" could reverse recent increases in life expectancy.
"Childhood obesity is becoming increasingly prevalent around the globe. Our observations, combined with those of other investigators, suggest that failure to reverse this trend may have wide-reaching consequences for the quality of life and longevity," the authors of the study wrote.
"Such evidence underscores the importance of preventing obesity starting in the early years of life," they wrote, giving tacit approval to the first lady's "Let's Move" campaign to halt childhood obesity, which was launched Tuesday.
Let's Move has the ambitious goal of solving "the problem of childhood obesity in a generation so that children born today will reach adulthood at a healthy weight," Obama said at the launch.
There are three times as many obese children in the United States today than 30 years ago, she said, and warned that this generation of American children could be the first to have shorter lifespans than their parents.
Nearly one in five US kids aged six to 19 are obese, which in technical terms mean they have a body mass index -- calculated by dividing a person's weight in kilograms by their height squared in meters -- greater than 30.
In health terms, it means they are at greater risk for a whole host of maladies, ranging from high blood pressure to diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
The study published Wednesday also looked at whether other cardiovascular risk factors in childhood increased the risk of dying young.
Having high blood pressure or glucose intolerance as a child were associated with increased rates of premature death, but high cholesterol levels were not.