Could it be that we are witnessing two opposing forces in attempts to improve education worldwide? In the quest for higher quality education, governments are investing more in teachers, technology, and training. Yet, as this happens, kids are less ready to learn than ever before.
Girth around the world is increasing. “Globesity,” the term given to this global epidemic of overweight and obesity by the World Health Organization, is rapidly becoming a major health problem. It is associated with upsurges in diabetes and heart disease, with direct and indirect costs extracting an exorbitant price. In the United States direct and indirect costs associated with obesity are around US$150 billion a year, or almost three times the GDP of Bolivia, where I currently reside.
The problem is not limited to adults. Kids everywhere are getting fatter, and few countries possess the fiscal possibilities to invest an ever growing share of their GDPs in health issues that many experts deem to be largely preventable (Youfa and Lobstein, 2006).
From the 1970s to the present, the prevalence of overweight and obesity in school-age children has doubled, even tripled, in countries as diverse Brazil, Chile, Finland, Greece and Japan. Half of all children were projected to be overweight or obese in North and South America by the year 2010. Data from the World Health Organization give Argentina the dubious honor of leading Latin America in the rate of obesity in children under five years: 7.3%.
These trends transcend all socioeconomic levels and do not disappear as children mature into adults. Estimates suggest that half of obese children and 70% of obese adolescents will remain obese in adulthood. This last figure climbs to 80% if at least one parent is also obese (Whitaker et al., 1997). As adults, these teens have lower levels of education and lower wages than their healthier peers. In adults, obesity may be associated with marked decreases in brain volume in areas related to attention, memory and cognition (see Burkhalter and Hillman, 2011).
Nutrition bears a strong association with brain and childhood development, and the building blocks of good nutrition are essential for improving cognition and academics. Stunting (measured by height-for-age of less than -2 standard deviations) in early childhood is caused by poor nutrition rather than by genetic differences and is associated with irreversible cognitive damage. New (albeit limited) data point to similar problems associated with over consumption. Obese children and adolescents tend to perform worse than their peers of normal weight on cognitive tests. In addition, being obese in kindergarten appears to lead to declining academic performance throughout school, with girls at particular risk. Girls of normal weight at kindergarten, who are classified as obese by third grade, show significantly declines in test scores. Compared to their normal-weight peers, obese teenage girls are 50% more likely to repeat a grade than their normal weight peers; obese teenage boys are twice as likely to drop out of school (Ibid).
Part of the problem lies with changing nutritional patterns of children. Average daily servings of fruit, vegetables and fibers are falling below recommended guidelines, as saturated fats and sodium are being consumed in excess. This trend is universal. Diets in developing countries, particularly in urban areas, increasingly resemble those found in Europe and North America. Yet declines in moderate to vigorous activity are also at fault. Data reported for the US find that 8-18 year olds spend over 5 hours a day in front of a screen.
Solutions to large-scale problems are never simple and often difficult to implement. But, as this blog as argued since its first post, the data are clear with regard to importance of physical activity. There is a clear link between physical and mental fitness. Absent explicit attention to this link, no amount of technology or training or any other reform-oriented input is likely to produce the improvements in quality that societies around the world demand of their education systems.
Kelishadi, Roya (2007). “Childhood Overweight, Obesity, and the Metabolic Syndrome in Developing Countries.” Epidemiologic Reviews. 27:62-76. On the web at: http://epirev.oxfordjournals.org/content/29/1/.
World Health Organization. WHO Database on Child Growth and Malnutrition. On the web at: http://www.who.int/nutgrowthdb/en/.