In central California, obese children developing ailments of their grandparents

Fresno BeeAugust 1, 2012 

FRESNO -- High blood pressure, high cholesterol, heartburn -- these are not diseases of old age anymore.

Doctors in the central San Joaquin Valley are diagnosing children and adolescents in growing numbers with ailments usually seen in adults, and they say childhood obesity is behind the trend.

Chuck Newcomb, a registered dietitian in the Central Valley, told the Sun-Star in the past that parents aren't setting good examples themselves.

Their children could suffer the consequences.

"For a large percentage of the population, what you do as an adult reflects what you always did as a child," he said in a previous interview. "Many teens are going to end up having the same health problems that adults have."

Type 2 diabetes used to be found only in adults, but that has changed in recent years. Now the illness is being diagnosed in children, as well, Newcomb said.

To help reverse those trends, children and youngsters must be more aware of what they eat. And they need to stay active, he said.

A 5-year-old weighing 110 pounds and a 10-year-old pushing 260 have the same medical problems as their grandparents: hypertension, high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes, joint problems, fatty liver disease, sleep apnea, asthma, gallstones and gastro-esophageal reflux.

"All of this is really tied to the growing problem that we are seeing in our younger people of just being too heavy for their frame and being overweight," said Dr. Yvonne Juarez, chief of pediatrics at Kaiser Permanente Fresno.

In many cities in the Valley, more than 40 percent of the children are overweight or obese, according to the Center for Health Policy Research at the University of California at Los Angeles. Statewide, 38 percent of children are overweight or obese.

Doctors have had to adapt practices for obese children with complicated illnesses who take more time at appointments and need more follow-up visits.

While the doctors can treat the medical conditions, they say they worry that the underlying reason for the illnesses often remains, and as long as children are obese, they face long-term risks for health problems.

"What are these kids going to be like in 20 years? We really don't know the answer to that," said Dr. Joseph Gerardi, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Children's Hospital Central California in Madera County.

A recent study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 50 percent of overweight teenagers and 60 percent of obese youths nationwide had at least one risk factor for heart disease -- high blood pressure, high cholesterol or unhealthy blood-sugar levels.

All three risk factors are in big supply in the Valley's children, doctors said.

Doctors feel powerless against it, he said. "We have better treatment plans for leukemia than we do this."

It's a battle getting children and teens to give up junk food and sodas because the convenience foods have become entrenched in most American diets, the doctors said.

Communities need to step up to help children and teens and their families in the obesity fight, they said.

In Madera County, one such community program has been chipping away at childhood obesity. With a $1 million, three-year Kaiser grant, the Healthy Eating, Active Living project has targeted 19,000 people in the city of Madera.

The goals are to reduce the consumption of unhealthy items -- sugary drinks and fatty snacks -- and reduce calorie consumption overall. This year, water stations were placed at two elementary schools to provide free, clean water during the school day, said program manager Brandi Muro. Juarez at Kaiser also emphasizes diet change over medications for her young patients.

Fast foods, fatty snacks and sodas are the sources of many of the recurring tummy aches she sees. Acid reflux, a condition where stomach acids back up in the esophagus, is the most common obesity-related disease among her young patients, she said.

"If I could just do away with Hot Cheetos, I think there would be a lot fewer visits to me," Juarez said.

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