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"Our study shows that growth patterns in children who become severely obese by 6 years of age differ from normal-weight children as young as 4 to 6 months of age," said the study lead investigator, Dr. Allison Smego. She is a pediatric endocrinology fellow at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.
BMI is a measure of body fat based on height and weight. This tool isn't routinely used on children younger than 2 years, but the researchers hope their findings will change that.
For the study, they examined electronic health records of 480 severely obese children between 2 and 6 years in the Cincinnati area. These children had a BMI above the 99th percentile.
Children with a BMI at or above the 85th percentile for their age and gender are considered overweight. Those with a BMI at the 95th percentile or higher are considered obese.
The researchers also analyzed the records of nearly 800 kids between 2 and 6 years old who were at a healthy weight and had a BMI between the 5th and 75th percentiles.
The study showed that BMI began to shift in different directions among infants in the two groups as early as 4 months old. The researchers noted that most of the obese children were black and from low-income households.
To confirm their findings, the researchers repeated their study in a third group of nearly 2,650 children in Colorado. This trial, which involved more Hispanic children, showed that a BMI above the 85th percentile at least tripled the likelihood that a child would struggle with severe obesity by the age of 6 years.
The study authors concluded that a BMI above the 85th percentile at 6, 12 or 18 months of age was a strong predictor of severe obesity by the age of 6 years.
The study's findings were expected to be presented Friday at the Endocrine Society's annual meeting, in Boston. Until published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, data and conclusions presented at meetings are usually considered preliminary.
"Based on our findings, we recommend that pediatricians routinely measure BMI at infant well-child assessments beginning at 6 months, identify high-risk infants with BMI above the 85th percentile, and focus additional counseling and education regarding healthy lifestyle toward the families of these children," Smego said in a news release from the Endocrine Society.
"It might take the pediatrician a minute to look at BMI, yet it gives them a wealth of knowledge about how their patient is growing," Smego added.
-- Mary Elizabeth Dallas
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SOURCE: Endocrine Society, news release, April 1, 2016