Tag Archives: Health

Born in Bradford

Born in Bradford is a fascinating child health development project following the lives of thousands of children in the city. It hopes to find out more about the causes of childhood illness by studying children from all cultures and backgrounds as their lives unfold.

In this Child of our Time Podcast episode, one of the project’s lead researchers, Professor Kate Pickett from the University of York, explains more about the study, what’s in it that researchers can use, what  it’s found so far and what we can expect to come out of it in the future.

Photo credit: Tim Green

A bedtime story

Reading is key to giving children the best possible start in life. That’s what Child of our Time Editor Professor Yvonne Kelly will be telling representatives of the Swedish Government and European Commission today when she delivers the key note presentation at a seminar highlighting the importance and benefits of early interventions in children’s lives.

The seminar in Brussels has been organised by the City of Gothenburg in Sweden as part of its efforts to achieve the political goal of becoming an equal city and of its commitment to reduce inequalities.

Yvonne will be sharing research by herself and colleagues at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies looking at factors associated with children’s poor verbal skills and behaviour problems. The research shows the links between regular bedtimes and reading with children and better outcomes for them in terms of behaviour and how well they get on at school.

Organisers of the event hope their efforts will encourage other cities in Europe to join them in their ambition to create health equality and a good start in life for all.

Photo credit: Lars Plougmann

Giving children a better start

Child of our Time Editor, Yvonne Kelly will today be discussing why poorer children are more likely to be obese than their better off peers at a Big Lottery Fund event looking at how to give young children a better start in life.

She will be sharing recent research from the team at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL looking at patterns of obesity in  young children using data from the Millennium Cohort Study.

The research finds that children from poorer backgrounds are the most likely to be obese and that the inequalities between richer and poorer children increase over time (between the ages of 5 and 11).

The research also identifies a number of other important factors associated with childhood obesity including smoking during pregnancy, mother’s obesity, skipping breakfast and irregular bedtimes.

The event, A Better Start ‘Focus on Diet and Nutrition is part of a programme of evaluation of the Lottery Funded ‘A Better Start’ initiative which aims to improve the life chances of babies and very young children by delivering a significant increase in the use of preventative approaches in pregnancy and first three years of life.

Yvonne is one of a group of experts and innovators in the field of child health and development to be invited to participate in the first of the initiative’s Learning and Development events. Other speakers include Eustace de Sousa, the lead for children, young people and families at Public Health England and Michael Hallsworth, director for Health at the Government’s Behavioural Insights Team, Chris Cuthbert, Director of the Big Lottery Development Fund and Celia Supiah, CEO of the charity Parents 1st.

Why poorer children are at greater risk of obesity

Obesity may be the biggest public health crisis facing the UK today. Levels have risen more than three fold since 1980. Being obese makes you vulnerable to a range of health risks. Being an overweight child makes it more likely you will become an obese adult. And you are much more likely to be an overweight child, if you come from a poor family. If current trends continue, half the population of Britain could be obese by 2050. Early intervention is the most effective way to break this cycle. And that requires a better understanding of why children become overweight. A new study by a team at the ESRC funded International Centre for Lifecourse Studies in Society and Health at UCL and LSE makes clear the scale of the problem and points to some crucial factors likely to lead less-well-off children to gain excess weight, as co-author Professor Yvonne Kelly explains.

A link between poverty and childhood obesity has been found in many developed countries. Intuitively, it seems likely this link is the result of poorer parents not being able to afford healthier food, like fruit, or outings involving exercise for their children. It could also be that those parents know less about healthy lifestyles and that they themselves eat less healthily and exercise less. But intuition is an insufficient basis for the scale of intervention required. This study is the first attempt to examine and compare in detail why children in poorer families are more likely to be overweight.

Our data comes from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS). This tracks nearly 20,000 families from across the UK. We used measurements made when the children were aged 5 (when just entering primary school) and 11 (the point at which they leave primary school and are on the cusp of adolescence). We used standard definitions for ‘obese’ and ‘overweight’.

‘Stark’ link between poverty and obesity

The first thing we found was that the link between relative poverty and childhood obesity is stark. At age 5, poor children were almost twice as likely to be obese compared with their better off peers (6.6% of children from families in the poorest fifth of the sample were obese while the figure for the richest fifth is just 3.5%). By the age of 11, the gap has widened- nearly tripling (7.9% of the poorest fifth are obese; for the best-off, the figure is 2.9%).

Given that obesity is linked to the development of numerous chronic diseases and that there is evidence overweight and obese children are less likely to grow into economically and socially successful adults, this is a significant burden to be borne by the children of the less-well-off. And unless we can weaken the link our chances of reversing the overall obesity trend are much reduced.

Potential causes of that link

The MCS collects a broad range of data, allowing us to dig beneath these headline numbers to identify some of the specific ways in which relative poverty in childhood leads to an increased risk of obesity.

To measure the degree to which the mother followed a healthy life-style we looked at factors previously shown to be linked to the increased risk of obesity, such as whether the mother smoked during pregnancy, how long she breastfed for and whether the child was introduced to solid food before the age of four months.

We could also factor in the degree to which the mother was herself overweight or obese. To assess the impact of physical behaviour, we compared the frequency of sport or exercise, active play with a parent, hours spent watching TV or playing on a computer, journeys by bike and the time that children went to bed. We compared dietary habits via data on whether the child skipped breakfast and on fruit and sweet drink consumption.

Multiple factors

What we found was that a lot of these factors were relevant. Maternal behaviour in early childhood was certainly important. Markers of ‘unhealthy’ lifestyle here could mean as much as a 20% additional risk of obesity for a child. Measures of physical activity and diet were also relevant at both 5 and 11 years of age, as were early bedtimes and fewer hours in front of the TV or games console. Skipping breakfast and eating more fruit were factors at 5 but less significant at 11. Doing sport more frequently played a more important and protective role at age 11 than at age 5.

Further examination of the differences between the children aged 5 and aged 11 revealed that poorer children aged 5 were much more likely to gain excess weight up to age 11 than richer children. The earlier certain lifestyle factors can be challenged, therefore, the greater the chance of positive impact.

Multiple responses

Assuming that income inequality is not going to disappear, we can only tackle ‘inherited’ obesity via the lifestyle choices that tend to go with lower incomes. Early intervention with mothers clearly has huge potential. And evidence from our work suggests that this should start before birth or even conception. It is clear, too, that campaigns to encourage family physical activity and healthier diets would help.

The Government is already trying to persuade families to eat more healthily and take more exercise. But these efforts are widely targeted and their effectiveness only broadly assessed. Our analysis has already suggested better targeting. More research should be undertaken to narrow the aim and increase effectiveness still further.

Why are poorer children at higher risk of obesity and overweight? A UK cohort study is research by Alice Goisis, Amanda Sacker and Yvonne Kelly and is published in the European Journal of Public Health.

Photo credit: Playing on the computer,  John Watson

 

 

Are our children’s human rights equally protected?

It’s time to stop hitting our children and give them the same human rights protection afforded to adults says an important new report published by the NSPCC today. The report, which reviews all the available evidence on the impacts of physical punishment on children has been compiled by a team of academics at UCL: Dr Anja Heilmann, Professor Richard Watt and Child of our Time co-editor Professor Yvonne Kelly. Consultant paediatrician Dr Lucy Reynolds told us what she makes of the report and the impact she hopes it will have on policy makers, her colleagues in the medical profession, parents and children themselves.

Equally Protected? A review of the evidence on the physical punishment of children was commissioned by NSPCC Scotland, CHILDREN 1st, Barnardo’s Scotland and the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland.

Photo credit: Paediatrician, UW Health

We know enough now to stop hitting our children

Despite a steady decline in recent decades, the physical punishment of children remains common in British homes. The UK is one of only five countries in the European Union which has not committed to outlawing all physical punishment. British children have less protection from physical violence than adults – a clear violation of international human rights law. And, as a new study commissioned by a group of children’s charities shows, there’s ample evidence physical punishment can damage children and escalate into physical abuse. Author of the report, Dr Anja Heilmann from University College London makes the case for urgent action:

Sadly, it’s only the most extreme forms of child maltreatment that have dominated the headlines in recent years. As far as the media is concerned, there is a dearth of in-depth coverage of the issue of physical punishment, whilst UK governments have not implemented the kind of legal reform that has been happening in countries across the world.

Though there are variations between the nations of the UK, broadly all allow a defence of ‘reasonable punishment’ to a parent accused of lesser physical assault of a child in their care. In Scotland, the defence is one of ‘justifiable assault’.

In 2008, the Scottish Government said :

‘the current position ensures that the law gives children sufficient protection without unnecessarily criminalising parents who lightly smack their child.’

This position, however, is at odds with the substantial evidence base.

Much new research

Internationally, the past decade has seen a surge in the number of studies on the prevalence and outcomes of the physical punishment of children. The most recent substantial review in the UK was a 2008 study in Northern Ireland.

Our aim was to summarise the evidence that has become available since then. To do this we reviewed relevant studies published in English between January 2005 and June 2015. For a definition of physical punishment we used that provided by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child:

‘Corporal’ or ‘physical’ punishment is any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light.’     

We defined a ‘child’ as anyone under 18. Our initial search yielded more than 1500 returns. We narrowed these down to 98 for in-depth review.

Clear evidence of negative effects

The good news is that the physical punishment of children is in decline. One study found that in 1998 in the UK, 61% of young adults reported having been smacked as a child, while in 2009 this was true for 43%.

Public attitudes have also shifted with the use of physical punishment becoming less and less acceptable and a higher proportion of parents doubting its usefulness.

On a less positive note, we found clear evidence of physical punishment continuing to lead to serious negative outcomes for the child. Four-fifths of the relevant studies found physical punishment was related to increased aggression, delinquency and other anti-social behaviour.

One study in Scotland found that children who had been smacked during their first two years of life were more than twice as likely to have emotional and behavioural problems at age 4 than children who had not been smacked. There was evidence that the more physical punishment suffered by a child, the worse the subsequent problem behaviour.

The evidence suggests that physical punishment is still harmful even when administered in a generally loving and positive family environment – the “loving smack” might be a myth. In addition, all studies that tested it found a link between physical punishment and more serious child maltreatment.

The negative effects continue into adulthood. Again, four out of five relevant studies suggest a link between childhood physical punishment and adult aggression and antisocial behaviour. One large study in the US found that participants who had been physically punished as children were 60% more likely to suffer alcohol or drug dependence.

Legislate and communicate

Though the UK is in a minority in allowing physical punishment, it is not alone. We also looked at five European countries with varying legislative regimes. In all we found a large and growing majority of parents striving to rear their children without physical punishment.

Those countries which had both legislated to give children equal protection against assault and promoted intensive, long-term campaigns of public education had been more effective in changing attitudes and behaviours than those which had pursued either strategy alone.

The international approach to children’s rights is clear: they should be equal to those of adults. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that all steps to protect children from physical violence should be taken, has been ratified by the UK. And the UK’s continuing failure to explicitly prohibit all corporal punishment in the home has been criticised by the committee that monitors implementation of the Convention.

Act now

“Further research needed” is often one recommendation coming out of a study like this. And there is still a need to know more, for instance, about the efficacy of measures to reduce the incidence of childhood physical punishment.

But no more research is needed to tell us that physical punishment has the potential to damage children and carries the risk of escalation into physical abuse. Our conclusions only reinforce the findings of the 2008 Northern Ireland study.

We need legislation now. And legislation backed up by a large-scale information and awareness campaign.

Equally Protected? A review of the evidence on the physical punishment of children by Dr Anja Heilmann, Professor Yvonne Kelly and Professor Richard G Watt was commissioned by NSPCC Scotland, CHILDREN 1st, Barnardo’s Scotland and the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland.

Photo credit: ellyn.

 

Bringing up Britain and bedtimes

Can what time a child goes to bed affect how they get on at school was one of the topics under discussion in the first of BBC Radio 4’s Bringing up Britain series, which this week considered whether and how it is possible to boost a child’s IQ. The programme featured research by Child of Our Time Editor, Professor Yvonne Kelly into whether the time a child goes to bed has any influence on their reading and maths ability and spatial awareness.

Presenter Mariella Frostrup and a panel of experts discussed a range of research and views about the role of parenting on intelligence – from the effect of exercise and diet to the difference can breastfeeding, flashcards, violin lessons and superfoods really make.

When it came to looking at the effect of bedtimes, the programme interviewed Professor Kelly, who talked them through findings from her recent work looking at the effects of regular and irregular bedtimes and some 10,000 children in the Millennium Cohort Study.

Speaking on the programme, she explained that that children with irregular bedtimes did not do so well as their counterparts with more regular bedtimes and that the difference was “not trivial”, equating to a difference of around 2-3 IQ points.

The research has also looked at the effects of irregular bedtimes on children’s behaviour as well as how well they are getting on.

If you are interested in finding out more about how the bedtimes research was carried out, you  can listen to Yvonne Kelly in one of our Child of our Time Research Talks here on the blog.

Photo credit: Lars Plougmann

Can racism towards a mum hurt her children?

Racial discrimination affects people in a range of ways. We know, for instance, that it can lead to poor health. We know, too, that our lives are linked, particularly with those of family members. So, can racism suffered by a parent affect a child? Are the negative effects of social ills transmitted within families? If so, how? And how might we be able to break negative links? A new study reveals some interesting patterns and possible explanations, as Dr Laia Becares from the University of Manchester, explains:

Understanding how our lives are linked is an essential part of understanding how society works. We know that racial discrimination affects the health and life chances of an individual, and it leads to inequalities in health among ethnic minority people, compared to the White majority population.

We know, too, that racial discrimination experienced by one individual impacts not only on that particular person, but on family members of the same generation, and those of previous and future generations. For example, if someone is discriminated against at work in terms of a promotion to a better position, or even in terms of getting hired, this has clear important financial consequences for that person, but also for her/his children, and older family members who may be under their care.

This is one of the ways in which the harm of racial discrimination is perpetuated across generations. Socioeconomic circumstances are strongly linked to health, so this example also shows how racial discrimination leads to poor health indirectly – via socioeconomic inequalities.

Racism and our health

But what about the direct association between racial discrimination and poor health, and the way this harm is transmitted across generations?

The Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), a representative study of children born in the UK between September 2000 and January 2002, offers a quality and quantity of data that, with the right interrogation, offers some important suggestions.

To ask the right questions of the data we needed a hypothesis. Drawing on well-established literature, we chose to focus on two potential mechanisms of transmission.

First we looked at the possible impact of racial discrimination on a mother’s mental health and then at the possible impact on parenting practice, particularly the possibility of it increasing harsh discipline tactics. These two mechanisms are centred on increased stress experienced by the mother following experiences of racial discrimination.

We also looked at three different types of exposure to racial discrimination – that suffered by the mother, that suffered by the family as a whole and that affecting the whole neighbourhood.

Information about the MCS children has been collected at various points since the start of the study. We used data collected when the children were between five and eleven years old.

Measuring discrimination

Racial discrimination was measured in terms of the mother’s experience of racially motivated insults, disrespectful treatment, or unfair treatment. We also used measures of whether family members had been treated unfairly, and whether the family lived in a neighbourhood where racial insults or attacks were common.

Mental health was assessed using the Kessler-6 scale – a well-established scale based on how often an individual has felt such things as depression and nervousness over the past month.

We measured harsh parenting practices by using records of how often parents had smacked or shouted at their children. And we measured the child’s socioemotional development by using another well-established scale – the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire developed by Robert Goodman and others.

We adjusted for complicating factors such as mother’s age at time of birth, mother’s educational attainment, household income, whether the mom was born in the UK, and the language most often spoken in the home.

For each factor we used data gathered at relevant stages. So, the measure of racial discrimination is based on data collected when the children were five years old, the mother’s mental health and parenting practices when the children were seven years old and the outcome when the children were aged eleven. The sample was pooled from all UK ethnic minority groups.

Racism and mental health

Around the time of the child’s fifth birthday almost a quarter (23%) of ethnic minority mothers reported having been racially insulted. There was a strong association with less good mental health for the mother two years later.

Both increased maternal psychological distress and increased harsh parenting practices were associated with increased socioemotional difficulties for the child at age 11. A worsening of the mother’s mental health had the most consistent indirect effect on a child’s socioemotional difficulties six years later.

Our results also showed some direct effects of racial discrimination on children. Family experiences of unfair treatment all had a direct effect on a child’s later socioemotional development.

We have to acknowledge some limitations of the study. We restricted ourselves to discrimination faced by mothers and its consequences. There are other things going on in families that affect children’s health. Plus ethnic minority children are likely to experience discrimination directly at school. And, of course, ethnic minority families are more likely to live in deprived areas and to suffer from other social inequalities.

Damage over time underestimated

The study does, however, offer strong support to our hypothesis that a mother’s experience of racial insults, of being treated disrespectfully by shop staff and broader family experience of unfair treatment, harms children over time as a result of the mother’s worsening mental health. This has been underestimated in the past.

If we are to break cycles of deprivation and begin to redress the imbalances in health between the majority and minority populations, policy-makers would do well to put more emphasis on mothers’ mental health.

Whatever is done to reduce a child’s direct experience of racial discrimination – at school, for instance – the mother’s experience and its effect on her is now shown to be important factor in the health of ethnic minority children. That said, the main implication of this study is that racial discrimination is harmful to individuals, families, and societies, and so efforts should be targeted at eliminating it.

A longitudinal examination of maternal, family, and area-level experiences of racism on children’s socioemotional development: Patterns and possible explanations is research by Dr Laia Becares, Professor James Nazroo and Professor Yvonne Kelly and is published in Social Science and Medicine.

Photo credit: moinuddin forhad

Parenting before and after separation

Do more involved dads have more contact with their child in the event of a separation? And does a mother’s confidence in her ability as a parent take a knock on separation? Researchers Professor Lucinda Platt from the London School of Economics and Political Science and Dr Tina Haux from the University of Kent  have been investigating these questions, using the Millennium Cohort Study, in a Nuffield Foundation funded research project looking at parenting before and after separation.

 

Photo credit: Dani Vazquez

Teenage obesity and bowel cancer risk

Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer among men worldwide, with nearly 1.4 million new diagnoses each year. Links with obesity in adulthood are fairly well established with what appears to be a rise in risk with increasing body mass index. The link is significantly stronger for men than it is for women. Much less is known about potential causes at earlier stages of life, especially adolescence, as Professor Scott Montgomery from UCL explains.

Adolescence marks the transition from childhood to adulthood and is a period of accelerated growth, especially for men. We wanted to look at whether obesity, or even just excess weight, during the teenage years increase the likelihood of colorectal cancer later in life?

Asking men diagnosed with bowel cancer what they weighed as teenagers is not a reliable source of data. What we needed to examine this question robustly was a large sample of men who were accurately measured in their youth and are now sufficiently old for a significant number to have developed bowel cancer.

One such group is men who experienced compulsory Swedish military conscription assessments. Around a quarter of a million young men aged around 18 years were assessed for conscription between 1969 and 1976. After excluding those with errors in the original measurements and excluding men with pre-existing medical conditions gave us a sample of just under 240,000 – equivalent to 8 and half million person years of data.

The men’s height and weight was measured by trained personnel during the conscription examination. From these data body mass index (BMI) or kg/m² was calculated and those numbers were put into five groups – underweight (BMI of less than 18.5), normal (BMI of 18.5 to 24.9), lower overweight (BMI of 25 to 27.4), upper overweight (BMI of 27.5 to 29.9) and obese (BMI of over 30).

A blood test was also taken and tested for signs of higher levels of inflammation, which can signal diseases processes relevant to bowel cancer risk.

Cancer diagnosis

Over an average of 35 years following conscription, 885 of the men were diagnosed with bowel cancer, comprising 501 cases of colon cancer and 384 cases of rectal cancer.

Men who had been underweight in adolescence had a slightly lower risk of a colorectal cancer diagnosis than normal weight men. Lower overweight men had a non-statistically significant higher risk, upper overweight men had a statistically significant 2.08-fold higher risk and obese men had a 2.38-fold higher risk.

Men, who had suffered high levels of late adolescent inflammation, were found to be at a 63% higher risk of being diagnosed with bowel cancer than those with normal levels. The link between BMI and a diagnosis was independent of inflammation levels, suggesting adolescent BMI may be operating in a different way and through mechanisms other than the inflammation detected during adolescence.

The average age at the end of follow-up was 53.9 years, so our analysis did not look at any changes in late adulthood. It seems unlikely, though, that the upper weight groups would suffer less in later years.

It was also impossible to account for whole life measures of BMI and inflammation and so we are not able to comment on whether the strong association between adolescent BMI and bowel cancer could be mitigated by weight loss during adulthood. It is, however, plausible that it is the total duration of exposure to high BMI or inflammation that brings the increased risk rather than exposure at a specific age. High BMI or inflammatory processes already present during adolescence may persist for many years into adulthood.

It is also important to stress that the findings do not necessarily apply equally to women. Certainly, other studies have shown the associations between BMI and inflammation and bowel cancer are weaker among women than men.

Robust study

All that said, this is a robust, important study based on good quality measurement and a lengthy time frame. At a time when increasing adolescent obesity in the United States, for instance, appears to be being followed by an increasing incidence of bowel cancer among young adults, it contributes to the case for further work to be undertaken with some urgency.

What our research does suggest is a graded association between adolescent inflammation and bowel cancer and an even stronger association between adolescent BMI and the risk of bowel cancer in men. We have notable evidence of a link between these exposures at a particularly vulnerable stage of development and the later incidence of bowel cancer.

More work needs to be done, particularly to clarify how inflammation and BMI act or interact to affect an increased risk of bowel cancer. Further research is also needed to disentangle these factors from other risks both in adolescence and later life.

Further information

Adolescent body mass index and erythrocyte sedimentation rate in relation to colorectal cancer risk is research by Elizabeth D Kantor, Ruzan Udumayan, Lisa B Signorello, Edward L Giovannucci, Scott Montgomery and Katja Fall and is published in the journal, Gut.

Photo credit: Marina Lobanova