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Tackling childhood obesity
State universities to research how to prevent condition
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ATHENS — Georgia ranks as the third worst in the nation for overweight or obese children. That status has the attention of university researchers; government agencies; and health care, public health, philanthropic and community organizations from across Georgia who will convene in Atlanta in November to share findings and identify ways in which they can act together to address one of the worst public health concerns in the state — and the nation.

The free conference, “Addressing Childhood Obesity in Georgia: Scientific, Educational, Philanthropic, Community-Based and Legislative Efforts,” will be held Nov. 19-20 at the Georgia Tech Global Learning Center in Atlanta. It is sponsored by The University System of Georgia and the Georgia Research Alliance. Faculty, researchers, and graduate and undergraduate students from across Georgia’s research universities will attend.

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and its affiliated Georgia Children’s Health Alliance, which have made childhood obesity prevention a priority, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are among the other participating organizations and agencies.

“Childhood obesity is rampant in Georgia,” said David Lee, UGA vice president for research, one of the conference’s organizers. “We hope this conference will lead to partnerships among Georgia’s research universities and communities to mitigate this epidemic.”

The rate of childhood obesity nationally is four times higher than it was 40 years ago. A 2009 study by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation identified 37.3 percent of Georgia’s children ages 10-17 as overweight or obese. The rate of obesity is especially high among children living in rural areas of Georgia.

Marsha Davis, associate professor of health promotion and behavior in UGA College of Public Health and one of the conference planners, said that while child obesity is a health crisis now, the full impact of Georgia’s child obesity epidemic won’t be felt until further down the road.

“Even now,” Davis said, “we are seeing more adult diseases, including hypertension and type 2 diabetes, diagnosed in children. But for the first time in 200 years, today’s generation of children are projected to have a shorter life span than their parents, largely due to obesity and its related diseases. The long-term impacts of obesity cut across areas of health cost, quality of life and workforce.”

The impacts of chronic diseases like obesity go beyond individuals’ health, agreed Lee. “They are also increasingly burdensome for the state and employers in the form of spiraling health care costs.”

Davis said obesity prevention is a very complex issue that must be addressed by communities. “Broad-based community partnerships have the potential to develop more effective interventions, enhance the translation of the results into practice, and most importantly, be sustainable,” she said.

Lee said UGA is in a unique position to join with communities to develop, implement and evaluate obesity prevention efforts.  

“We have faculty who are experts in nutrition, school exercise programs, health-risk communications, the use of new media to better communicate with youth, health policies, and assessment of intervention methods,” said Lee. “We can also take advantage of the University of Georgia Archway Partnership project, which is known across the state for its successful community outreach programs.”