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Health & Wellbeing Across the Lifecycle

Understanding Recent Trends in U.S. Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity, which increases the chances of adult obesity and other health issues, has risen in the United States over the last several decades. In a study published in Economics & Human Biology, IPR director and economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and her colleagues examine data on children’s weight from six different nationally representative datasets to understand this trend and how it differs across time, race, and gender. They find that childhood obesity has more than tripled in the last four decades, rising from 5% in 1978 to 18.5% in 2016, but the rise in obesity rates slowed down between 2004 and 2016. Their analysis of the data by age shows that obesity rises through early childhood and levels off by age 10. Recent data shows that overall, growth in the prevalence of obesity between the ages of 5 and 9 declined, which may be the result of school policies, after-school programs, or other interventions, according to the researchers. Black and Hispanic 5-year-olds were more likely than white five-year-olds to be obese—with black and Hispanic boys experiencing the largest rise in obesity. White boys experienced smaller gains in obesity than white girls, while black and Hispanic girls’ obesity levels were lower than black and Hispanic boys. The researchers suggest that future studies should look for variations in the pre-kindergarten environment for these children to identify what is causing the weight difference. Schanzenbach is the Margaret Walker Alexander Professor and Director of IPR.

Using Text Messages to Help New Dads

According to recent estimates, about 10 percent of fathers experience depression after their child is born. Lurie Children’s Hospital Pediatrician and IPR associate Craig Garfield and his colleagues are exploring the use of a text-based intervention to reduce fathers’ depression and improve their children’s well-being. The SMS4dads program allows fathers to monitor their mood and provides them with online information. The researchers have recruited 800 fathers-to-be or new fathers from Australia, randomized into two groups. Fathers in the intervention group will receive 14 texts per month addressing their physical and mental health, their relationship with their child, and co-parenting with their partner. Fathers in the control group will receive generic health promotion texts twice each month. The study is the first trial to examine the efficacy of direct text support for men in their transition to fatherhood.

Early-Term Delivery and Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding has long been recognized as beneficial to both mothers and babies. Mothers who exclusively breastfeed tend to stick to breastfeeding longer. Does the length of a pregnancy relate to whether mothers breastfeed their newborns exclusively? In a new study, IPR developmental psychobiologist Emma Adam, IPR health psychologist Greg Miller, and obstetrician and IPR associate Ann Borders, along with their colleagues, examine differences in breastfeeding outcomes between early-term babies—born between 37 and 39 weeks—and full-term babies, born at 39 weeks or later. Using data from two research projects on racially diverse mothers in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Texas, the researchers examine whether mothers exclusively breastfed their infants while still in the hospital after giving birth. They determine that mothers of early-term babies exclusively breastfed for 30% less time than mothers of full-term babies, even when other factors, such as pregnancy complications, maternal race/ethnicity, and Medicaid status, are adjusted for. Because breastfeeding is key in maternal-child healthcare, these findings suggest that U.S. medical practice should provide additional support for mothers who deliver early-term babies, as is the case in other countries such as Australia and Canada. Adam is the Edwina S. Tarry Professor of Human Development and Social Policy, and Miller is the Louis W. Menk Professor of Psychology.

Illinois Youth Hospital Visits for Anxiety and Depression

Children and adolescents are visiting hospital emergency departments (EDs) for serious behavioral, mental, and mood disorders in increasing numbers. Those diagnosed with anxiety or depression are frequently hospitalized. Who is going to EDs for help and who is being hospitalized in Illinois? In Academic Pediatrics, community health scholar and IPR associate Joe Feinglass and his colleagues at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine analyzed administrative data on over 39,500 ED visits from 2016–17 in the state’s private and nonprofit hospitals. They focused on children aged 5–19 years who had a principal diagnosis of anxiety or depression. In the two years of the study, 25% of these youth were hospitalized in Illinois. Those with depression were 4.5 times likelier to be hospitalized than those with anxiety. The researchers also observed that children who had another serious mental illness—such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or hallucinations—who were suicidal, or who had a substance abuse problem were the most likely to be admitted to the hospital. Hispanic children, those on Medicaid, and those seen on the weekend were less likely to be admitted to the hospital. The findings raise concerns about deteriorating mental health in children and disparities in their treatment.

Responding to the Emotions of Others

When people encounter others’ emotions, whether in joyful or sad circumstances, they respond with their own, signaling their concern for others. This concern can lead to close and positive relationships with others. Do people’s responses to others’ emotions differ across age groups, and do these differences relate to how people connect with one another? To answer these questions, developmental psychologist and IPR associate Claudia Haase and her colleagues measure facial expressions of emotions in research published in Emotion. Participants of different ages, 20–30 years old, 40–50 years old, and 60–80 years old, were shown two film clips depicting others in need, a “distressing” and an “uplifting” one. Findings show that older adults expressed more sadness and more concern when watching the distressing clip than younger adults. For the older adults, more sadness and fewer disgust expressions were associated with higher levels of connectedness to others. When they viewed the uplifting clip, older adults showed more happiness than younger adults. It is a mistake, the authors point out, to think of particular emotions as “good” or “bad”—even supposedly negative emotions such as sadness can have a positive side.