Study Finds Correlation Between Parents with Obesity and Earlier Onset Obesity in Their Children

September 7, 2022

A new Rollins-led study published in American Journal of Epidemiology examined patterns of obesity in families and found that children whose parents have obesity are three to six times more likely to also develop obesity compared to children of parents with normal weight. They also develop excess weight much earlier in life than other children, this is important, because longer exposure to obesity may elevate risks for obesity-related health conditions. Shared risks of obesity within families may be explained by genetic similarities, shared living environments, and similarities in health-related behaviors. . Rollins authors on the article are Jannie Nielsen, PhD, lead author; Solveig A. Cunningham, PhD; and K.M Venkat Narayan, PhD.

The investigators analyzed data from a nationally representative sample of 3,284 youth from the U.S. Panel Study of Income Dynamics (1997-2017), with 16,396 height and weight records, to estimate the age at the onset of overweight and obesity.

Major findings from the article include:

  • Children with an obese parent were on average overweight by the age of 6.
  • Even young people whose parents were normal weight are still heavier than their parents were.
  • At age 30, nearly half of those with a parent with obesity had obesity themselves.
  • Even children of normal-weight parents were on average overweight by the age of 25 years.

“There are indications that rates of obesity will continue to rise,” says Cunningham. “But, these findings can help inform the ways in which we support people who are at higher risk to either delay the onset of obesity or prevent it from going as high. In doing so, we could also potentially prevent other morbidities that tend to come along with obesity.” 

The authors note that despite the strong correlation for increased obesity among children with obese parents, obesity remains a risk for everyone at a higher rate than previous generations and that it should continue to be an area for concern. With generational increases in obesity expected to continue, there are opportunities to adjust public health messaging to prevent co-morbidities and better inform future generations.