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Sleep-Deprived Teens Face Higher Obesity Risk

First Posted: Aug 21, 2014 02:29 AM EDT

Teenagers receiving less than six hours of sleep at night are at an increased risk of becoming obese by the time they are 21 years old, a new study reveals.

Previous research has highlighted the strong association between sleep deprivation and obesity. Over one-third of American adults are obese and over the past few decades, this epidemic has been worsening. During a 2002 study, around 1.1 million people found that their body mass index was higher when they slept for less than 7-8 hours.

The new study, conducted in collaboration with researchers at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University and the University of North Carolina's Gillings School of Public Health, investigated the correlation between sleep deprivation and obesity in teenagers.

The researchers state that 16-year-olds with sleep apnea, who feel sleepy during the day, face a 20 percent increased risk of becoming obese at the age of 21 years as compared to their peers who slept for more than eight hours.

"Lack of sleep in your teenage years can stack the deck against you for obesity later in life," said Shakira F. Suglia, ScD, assistant professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School. "Once you're an obese adult, it is much harder to lose weight and keep it off. And the longer you are obese, the greater is your risk for health problems like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer."

It is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that teenagers should receive nine-ten hours of sleep every night. In this study, the researchers evaluated the effect of sleeplessness on obesity in teens. The finding provides strong evidence that lack of sleep ups the risk of high BMI.

To prove the hypothesis, they examined the data of over 10,000 American teens and young adults of age 16-21 years, who were a part of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Details of participants' height and weight were taken during the home visits held in 1995 and 2001.

They noticed that nearly one-fifth of the 16-year-olds received less than 6 hours of sleep. Those with less than six hours of sleep had 20 percent higher risk of being obese by the time they were 21 years old, as compared to their peers who slept for more than 8 hours per night.  Further factors like sedentary lifestyle and excess television viewing contributed to the risk of becoming obese, but they did not account for the link between sleeplessness and obesity.

"The message for parents is to make sure their teenagers get more than eight hours a night," adds Suglia. "A good night's sleep does more than help them stay alert in school. It helps them grow into healthy adults."

The finding appears in the Journal of Pediatrics.

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