Pediatricians in almost every part of the country report seeing undernourished children in greater numbers than at any time in recent memory. More and more parents who have fallen on hard times due to the ongoing economic downturn are unable to afford enough food to give to their kids. Entire families subsist on junk food and go hungry for several days each month, according to a survey conducted by researchers at Boston Medical Center (BMC).
Damages from Poor Nutrition Are Not Easily Reversed
“Before the economy soured in 2007, 12 percent of youngsters age 3 and under whose families were randomly surveyed in the hospital’s emergency department were significantly underweight. In 2010, that percentage jumped to 18 percent, and the tide does not appear to be abating,” said Dr. Megan Sandel, professor of pediatrics and public health at BMC and investigator with Children’s Health Watch, a network of researchers who track children’s health in the U.S. “Food is costing more and dollars don’t stretch as far. It’s hard to maintain a diet that is healthy,” she added.
Doctors at hospitals in Baltimore, Little Rock, Minneapolis and Philadelphia also reported dramatic increases in the ranks of malnourished kids that show up in their emergency rooms with nutrition-related health problems.
Nearly 40 million people, including 14 million children, are currently facing hunger or the risk of hunger in America, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s surveys on domestic food security. 3.5 percent of American households experience hunger on a regular basis, meaning that families are forced to skip meals and go without food for entire days. Three million children live under these severe conditions. Another eight percent of households are affected by chronic food insecurity, which means they are periodically at risk of hunger, eat low-quality diets and depend heavily on outside help, such as food stamps and food banks. 10.5 million children live currently in this kind of situation.
When children experience hunger, even temporarily, it is a much more serious problem than when adults suffer from shortages. A lot of irreversible damage can be done when growing kids are deprived of essential nutrients. A recently published study on the exposure to famine and under-nutrition during childhood and adolescence found that serious health problems persist throughout adulthood among those who were exposed to malnutrition early in life. The study, which was conducted by researchers from the University Medical Centre Utrecht and the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and published in the European Heart Journal, found “direct evidence that acute under-nutrition during childhood has an important impact on future health.”
For the study, the researchers investigated the medical history of almost 8,000 women who lived as children, teenagers or young adults during the so-called “Dutch famine” right at the end of World War II. “The Dutch famine of 1944 to 1945 is a ‘natural experiment’ in history, which gave us the unique possibility to study the long-term effects of acute under-nutrition during childhood,” wrote Dr. Annet van Abeelen from Utrecht, one of the lead authors of the study report. “Our findings suggest that a relatively short period of severe under-nutrition is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease in adult life, in a dose-dependent manner,” she added.
The women who were between 10 and 17 years old at the start of the famine, and who had been severely exposed to food shortages, were found to have a 38 percent higher risk of developing heart disease later in life, compared to others who were only moderately or not at all affected.
“The contemporary relevance of our findings is that famine and under-nutrition are still a major problem worldwide,” Dr. Abeelen wrote.
Depending on a child’s age, malnutrition can be extremely harmful both mentally and physically. Symptoms of nutritional deficiencies can include poor (stunted) growth of the brain and vital organs, mental retardation, muscle weakness, compromised immune system, fragile bone structure (rickets, osteoporosis), decaying teeth, delayed growth spurts and puberty, delayed menstrual cycle for young girls, and many chronic conditions, like asthma, anemia and pneumonia. A vast array of illnesses that develop later in life, like diabetes, heart disease and failure of key organs to function properly, can also be traced back to poor nutrition during childhood.
In other words, from a perspective of public health, the myriad effects of poverty and hunger on today’s children will stay with us for a very long time, possibly for a generation. Even proponents of austerity programs to reduce the national deficit acknowledge that cutting back on government spending on behalf of the most vulnerable members of society will make the current situation only worse. For the millions who already struggle to survive, shrinking the economy further is a recipe for disaster. In the end, we all will pay the price in terms of higher health care costs – just to keep a significant part of the population alive.