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Childhood obesity: scientists explore pollution and sleep as possible causes

BRISTOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 07:  French fries from a fast food outlet is seen on January 7, 2013 in Bristol, England.  A government-backed TV advert - made by Aardman, the creators of Wallace and Gromit - to promote healthy eating in England, is to be shown for the first time later today. England has one of the highest rates of obesity in Europe - costing the NHS 5 billion GDP each year - with currently over 60 percent of adults and a third of 10 and 11 year olds thought to be overweight or obese.  (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Matt Cardy/Getty Images
It might not just be food that is making kids fat. New research delves into sleep and pollution as possible causes. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Over the next five years, scientists at the University of Southern California will conduct new research and analyze existing data to see if there is a relationship between pollution near busy roadways and obesity.

With a newly awarded $7.8 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, USC's Keck Medicine's Children’s Environmental Health Center will send three teams of scientists to conduct studies of children who live close to a major roadway. They are looking for links to metabolic abnormalities that may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes. Scientists will also study data from previous research to look for air pollution’s possible role in the development of obesity.

“This study examines a unique data set – 12,000 children who have been followed from elementary school through high school graduation as part of the USC Children’s Health Study,” said study Rob McConnell, professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine.

It marks the first dedicated study of a possible pollution-based obesity in humans. Recent research involving animals has shown that air pollution in an urban environment led to obesity and metabolic abnormalities.

McConnell said in a public statement that his team will create “an education program" and conduct "outreach" based on study results "that are relevant for science-based interventions and policy to community and other groups interested in obesity prevention.”

Another study recently published in the journal Pediatrics looked at another possible factor behind childhood obesity: lack of sleep.

Researchers from Temple University studied 37 kids between 8 and 11 years old over a three-week period. The children slept for a certain number of hours per night for one week, a higher number of hours another week and a lower number for another week. Researchers tracked the sleep using wrist actigraphs.

In the week that the children slept more – up to 2 hours more – they consumed 134 fewer calories per day, on average — and even lost some weight.

"Findings from this study suggest that enhancing school-age children's sleep at night could have important implications for prevention and treatment of obesity," said Chantelle Hart, associate professor of public health, who led the study at Temple's Center for Obesity Research and Education. "The potential role of sleep should be further explored."