February 1, 2002

The American â??couch-potatoâ? lifestyle of fast food and little, if any, physical activity is wreaking havoc with childrenâ??s health and has contributed to a growing rate of diabetes and signs of heart disease among young people.

Knowing that healthy behaviors early in life can have lifelong benefits, the UNT Health Science Center is providing local families with information they can use to adopt a healthier lifestyle for their children. At the same time, researchers are finding ways to address the growing problem of early-onset diabetes and heart disease.

Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body fails to produce or use enough insulin. Historically, it was considered an adult disease, but more teen-agers are being diagnosed. A similar pattern is now being observed with youngstersâ?? having high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels, both risk factors for coronary heart disease.

One leading study researcher is Ximena Urrutia-Rojas, PhD, assistant professor in the School of Public Health at the health science center. She is working with John Menchaca, MD, a Fort Worth pediatrician. â??Weâ??re trying to work with the whole family, not just focus on the child,â? Dr. Rojas says. â??Most likely, everyone in the household has similar eating and exercise habits. Together, we can find solutions that work for the whole family.â?

Other researchers working on the project are Walter McConathy, PhD, and Craig Spellman, DO, PhD, who are both associate professors in internal medicine, Andras Lacko, PhD, a professor in molecular biology, and Wendy Whittaker Wadley, MPH, research assistant. The research team is being assisted by master of public health student Naveed Ahmed, MBBS, and Ellie Kourosh, a dietician from the inaugural class of doctor of public health students.

In a survey of 1,056 local fifth-graders last year, researchers found that nearly a quarter of students surveyed were at high risk for developing diabetes according to American Diabetes Association criteria. The students were found to be at risk due to specific factors, such as high blood pressure, being overweight, or showing signs of acanthosis nigricans, a skin condition that can be an early sign of insulin problems. Family history of diabetes and being African-American or Latino also increased a childâ??s risk of the disease.

As a follow-up to the survey, families whose children were identified at risk were offered free in-depth clinical exams for all their children. The screening also measures blood sugar levels and cardiovascular risk factors.

â??Fortunately, none of these children were diagnosed with actual Type 2 diabetes,â? Dr. McConathy says. â??But the tests did show that these children remain at high risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Weâ??ve found that this young population resembles adults in their cholesterol and blood sugar levels.â?

After the childrenâ??s exams, the families discuss the test results with a clinician and learn specific ways to reduce their childrenâ??s risk.

Recommendations can be as simple as watching less TV, playing outside more, and eating healthier foods and fewer sweets. Families who attend counseling sessions have exhibited greater success and are more involved with addressing the issue.

In addition to working with individual families, the health science center continues to work with the Fort Worth Independent School District to implement population-based interventions to decrease or at least slow weight problems and obesity in FWISD students.

This fall, the school district will launch new menus to encourage healthy eating habits among students. In addition, students from kindergarten to eighth grade will now have physical education as a required daily activity, thanks to a new state law.

â??This project combines true service, comprehensive teaching, and high quality research,â? Dr. Rojas says. â??I hope that in the near future we will be able to say the health science center made a big contribution to the health of Fort Worth children.â?


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