Facial features as a teenager could be one of the clearest predictors of adult obesity and related chronic medical conditions — including early sudden death — according to new study by a Utah State University demographer.

Reporting in the journal Demography, Eric Reither and fellow researchers Robert Hauser and Karen Swallen find that weight status measured, in this case, from high school yearbook photographs, is a significant predictor of actual obesity.

Reither, an assistant professor of sociology at USU, and his colleagues devised a scale to capture facial characteristics, such as those involving the cheek and neck, as a means of estimating body mass. The study used 3,027 randomly chosen photographs from the more than 10,000 graduates from Wisconsin's high school class of 1957, who are part of the famous Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, one of the longest sociological investigations ever undertaken. Started at University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1957 as a survey of high school seniors' post-graduation plans, the WLS has evolved since into a study of the entire life course, including education, career, family, aging and retirement.

In Reither's study, those classified as overweight as high school seniors were three times as likely to be obese when interviewed in their early 50s. They also reported more health problems.

The researchers found that adolescents judged to be overweight based on the photographs were twice as likely to have died early in the study as those judged to be at a healthy weight. They were four times as likely to have died as the result of heart disease.

The findings have a number of implications, particularly in relation to the rapid increase in type 2 diabetes — the condition acquired due to poor diet and little exercise that most associated with the adult-onset type.

"The rapid increase in type 2 diabetes among children and adolescents in the U.S. is unprecedented and deeply troubling," Reither told the newspaper Friday. "It signifies that children are gaining excess weight earlier in life and to a greater extent than at any other time in our history," he said, adding that only a very small fraction of survey participants in the WLS would have suffered from childhood diabetes.

Having the facial features indicating that someone is prone to diabetes doesn't mean developing it is a given, he said. "The scientific literature is unequivocal that routine physical activity and the moderation of calorie intake can help with weight management and the prevention of many chronic diseases."

And even for people who already suffer from conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, regular exercise and dietary improvements have been shown to have very beneficial effects, Reither noted.

"The problem is that most people already know this but struggle to make the changes necessary to see real improvement," he said.

"I think it is very important to emphasize that a substantial body of research, including our own investigation, suggests that excess weight in childhood and adolescence tends to be neither temporary nor harmless," he said. "The incredible spike in type 2 diabetes among children in the U.S. highlights the importance of weight maintenance at all points in the life course, including early childhood."

Reither isn't a nutritionist or trainer, but he suggests several steps to anyone who might be borderline diabetic or is beginning a weight maintenance program:

Read "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto" by Michael Pollan. The University of California, Berkeley journalism professor cuts through the complicated and sometimes conflicting science of "nutritionism" to offer this simple mantra: "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."

Incorporate physical activity into daily routines. Simple measures like taking stairs, using public transportation (which often necessitates walking several blocks to the office or store) and riding a bicycle on short errands can increase both fitness and calorie expenditure.

Keep in mind that despite the relatively low prevalence of people who are overweight and obese in Utah, rates of people who are overweight and obese are on the rise in Utah just as they are nationwide.

Reither, who has a 5-year-old daughter, said parents should recognize that studies, including his own, show that being overweight in childhood and adolescence poses a considerable risk to long-term health, and even longevity (see the Web link at the end of this article as just one example of such research). Interestingly, some research, including a study he coauthored in Pediatrics suggests that the psychological and social complications of childhood obesity may be exaggerated by studies that rely on clinical samples.

This is an issue that is still unresolved in scientific literature, he said, noting that the scientific evidence is very clear that being overweight and obese at young ages can have both immediate and lifelong ramifications for physical health.


E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com