From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Eric Reither

Eric Reither has spent the past decade studying the health and economic consequences of obesity. He was recently awarded nearly $400,000 from the NIH to continue his work.

Pushing for Reform

By Kristen Munson

While the nation’s obesity epidemic is well-documented in the mainstream media, the emerging sleep problem of its youth has captured far less attention.

Obesity rates have tripled among American adolescents between 1980 and 2000, with significant disparities emerging across socio-economic and ethnic groups. During the same period, a decline in the quality and duration of sleep of American children also occurred. Eric Reither, associate professor of sociology, was recently awarded nearly $400,000 from the National Institutes of Health to investigate a possible connection.

He partnered with sleep epidemiologists and health demographers across the nation to study sleep, obesity, and the well-being of American adolescents. Their study began in August and is among the first to examine how obesity and sleep combine to affect physical and psychosocial health.

Using a large-scale data set compiled from 1994 to 2007 by the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health in 132 schools across the country, the scientists will track changes in sleep patterns from childhood to adolescence to see how it affects weight gain over time. They will also examine how these relationships may differ across racial and ethnic groups.

Reither’s team will evaluate how reductions in sleep may exacerbate physical and mental health issues associated with being overweight, such as depression, self-esteem, and performance in school. He believes if they can unearth these connections, they can help shape intervention efforts that target both sleep and obesity.

“Most scientists would like to think that their work is going to affect the world in some positive way,” Reither said. “I feel like our research has the potential to have a useful policy impact.”

Statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate 17 percent of Americans aged 2 to 19-years-old are obese—a figure that does not appear to be changing course soon.

“There is evidence the obesity epidemic may be plateauing,” he said. “But we need to do more than plateau to avoid some serious public health ramifications.”

After almost a decade of studying the health and economic consequences of obesity, Reither believes reversing trends is critical to prolonging lives as well as improving the quality of life for children in America.

In June 2011, he co-authored an op-ed in The New York Times with colleagues who studied how weight influences the career trajectories of women. They warned of the educational and economic disadvantages heavier women face throughout their lives. Two weeks later, The Economist highlighted Reither’s newly published study on obesity and life expectancy which critiques traditional demographic models used to predict mortality rates.

His study, which first appeared in the journal Health Affairs, argues that commonly used forecasting methods are not only inaccurate, but overly optimistic, because they do not account for health risks that are being accumulated by younger generations of Americans.

Throughout the past century, the life expectancy of Americans has climbed at steady and uninterrupted pace. Conventional projection techniques assume that the future will be like the past, and that continued improvements in health and longevity will occur for younger generations. However, this method fails to incorporate the health of current populations, which may be in a state of decline.

American adults are heavier now than ever before and becoming overweight earlier. This means people are living a larger portion of their lives with conditions associated with obesity such as Type-2 diabetes, Reither said.

Using a more sophisticated modeling system that accounts for the health status of younger Americans, Reither and his team found health outlooks are bleaker than anticipated. Their calculations suggest certain subgroups in the U.S. population face a shorter lifespan than previously reported. Declines are most pronounced among women in areas of the Southeast where the obesity epidemic has struck the hardest.

“We hope that our research will encourage others to redouble their efforts to develop effective public health programs,” Reither said. “It’s not too late to turn this around. The bottom line is that we would like for our pessimistic forecasts to be wrong. That can still occur if swift action is taken by schools, medical practitioners and other stakeholders in the public health community.”