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How youth cognitive and sociodemographic factors relate to the development of overweight and obesity in the UK and the USA: a prospective cross-cohort study of the National Child Development Study and National Longitudinal Study of Youth 1979

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Original languageEnglish
Article numbere033011
JournalBMJ Open
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 17 Dec 2019


We investigated how youth cognitive and sociodemographic factors are associated with the aetiology of overweight and obesity. We examined both onset (who is at early risk for overweight and obesity) and development (who gains weight and when).
Prospective cohort study.
We used data from the US National Longitudinal Study of Youth 1979 (NLSY) and the UK National Child Development Study (NCDS); most of both studies completed a cognitive function test in youth.
12 686 and 18 558 members of the NLSY and NCDS, respectively, with data on validated measures of youth cognitive function, youth socioeconomic disadvantage (eg, parental occupational class and time spent in school) and educational attainment. Height, weight and income data were available from across adulthood, from individuals' 20s into their 50s.
Body mass index (BMI) for four time points in adulthood. We modelled gain in BMI using latent growth curve models to capture linear and quadratic components of change in BMI over time.
Across cohorts, higher cognitive function was associated with lower overall BMI. In the UK, 1 SD higher score in cognitive function was associated with lower BMI (β=-0.20, 95% CI -0.33 to -0.06 kg/m²). In America, this was true only for women (β=-0.53, 95% CI -0.90 to -0.15 kg/m²), for whom higher cognitive function was associated with lower BMI. In British participants only, we found limited evidence for negative and positive associations, respectively, between education (β=-0.15, 95% CI -0.26 to -0.04 kg/m²) and socioeconomic disadvantage (β=0.33, 95% CI 0.23 to 0.43 kg/m²) and higher BMI. Overall, no cognitive or socioeconomic factors in youth were associated with longitudinal changes in BMI.
While sociodemographic and particularly cognitive factors can explain some patterns in individuals' overall weight levels, differences in who gains weight in adulthood could not be explained by any of these factors.

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