Obesity should be considered a brain disorder like autism or ADHD, doctors claim
- It occurs due to brain developments occurring in childhood, the study found
- Preventing these could halt the ‘worldwide obesity epidemic’, said researchers
- The study in mice found childhood brains are sensitive to later weight regulation
Obesity should be classified as a brain development disorder, doctors say.
That would put it in the same class as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Asperger’s.
They have made the recommendation after a study indicated obesity was partly caused by changes in the brain during childhood.
Obesity is currently regarded as a behavioral disease—a pattern of destructive choices people make that damages their health.
But Dr Harry MacKay, from Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, said rethinking this could be ‘the key to stopping the worldwide obesity epidemic’.
The number of Americans who are obese has been surgeries for decades, with four in 10 now medically too fat. In the UK, it is around 30 per cent.
President Joe Biden yesterday announced his plan for the biggest crackdown on obesity in 50 years.
It includes mandatory nutrition labeling on the front of food products to highlight snacks too fatty, sugary or salty.
And the criteria for food-makers to market their products as ‘healthy’ will also become stricter under the new plans.
Obesity can cause heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in both the US and UK. The study found that the changes in the brain which predetermine obesity happen earlier in females than males.
The new study in mice looked at epigenetics, the system of brain development determining which genes will and will not be used in different cell types.
The Texas researchers found that one part of the brain, called the arcuate nucleus, undergoes a lot of epigenetic changes in very early childhood.
During this time, brains are also particularly sensitive to programming which will later determine how well body weight can be regulated.
This means people could pile on the pounds later on in life if changes to the arcuate nucleus go wrong during childhood, the researchers said.
When the researchers compared the areas in the brain where the changes occur in mice and humans, they were surprised to find that the location in rodents overlapped with the part in people associated with obesity.
The researchers also discovered that these changes occur earlier in females than males.
Writing in the study, Dr MacKay said: ‘We believe public health interventions to curb the worldwide obesity epidemic would benefit by considering obesity as a neurodevelopmental disorder.’
The experts have called for further research into the role of epigenetics and development of obesity.
It is hoped this could open the door for new ways to screen and treat the disease.
The findings were published in the journal ScienceAdvance.
OBESITY: WHAT’S THE MEDICAL DEFINITION?
Obesity is defined as an adult having a BMI of 30 or over.
A healthy person’s BMI – calculated by dividing weight in kg by height in meters, and the answer by the height again – is between 18.5 and 24.9.
Among children, obesity is defined as being in the 95th percentile.
Percentiles compare youngsters to others their same age.
For example, if a three-month-old is in the 40th percentile for weight, that means that 40 per cent of three-month-olds weigh the same or less than that baby.
Around two in five men and women in the US are obese.
The condition costs the US healthcare system around $173billion a year.
This is due to obesity increasing a person’s risk of a number of life-threatening conditions.
Such conditions include type 2 diabetes, which can cause kidney disease, blindness and even limb amputations.
Obesity also raises the risk of heart disease, which kills 647,000 people every year in the US – making it the number one cause of death.
Carrying dangerous amounts of weight has also been linked to 12 different cancers.
This includes breast, which affects one in eight women at some point in their lives.
Among children, research suggests that 70 per cent of obese youngsters have high blood pressure or raised cholesterol, which puts them at risk of heart disease.
Obese children are also significantly more likely to become obese adults.
And if children are overweight, their obesity in adulthood is often more severe.
As many as one in five children start school in the US being overweight or obese.