Children who are overweight or on the threshold of obesity in the first two years of life may grow up to have lower cognitive abilities.

In a study by Brown University featured in the June issue of Obesity, epidemiologists found that compared to lean children, perceptual reasoning and working memory scores in obese children were relatively lower when tested at ages five and eight.

Obesity, because of its ability to dysregulate hormones that act in multiple brain regions, is associated with lower cognition in adults.

But until now, despite the increasing prevalence of childhood obesity, there has been little research on whether weight status impacts how children learn, remember information and manage attention and impulses.

“The first few years of life are critical for cognition development, and we investigated whether early-life adiposity has an impact on cognitive abilities later in life,” said Nan Li, lead author and a postdoctoral research associate in Brown’s Department of Epidemiology.

The researchers found that weight status did not appear to affect performance on some of the tests, but had three significant impacts.

“Excess early-life adiposity was associated with lower IQ, perceptual reasoning and working memory scores at school-age,” Li said.

According to Li, perceptual reasoning tests “assess children’s ability to examine a problem, draw upon visual-motor and visual-spatial skills, organize their thoughts, create solutions and then test those solutions”.

The authors also noted that the sample size of their study was limited and that further large-scale studies should be conducted.

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