LONDON, May 5 (Reuters) Children who are overweight or obese by the age of 11 are likely to carry their excess weight into adulthood and to suffer from related health problems, researchers said today.
A study by scientists at University College London who tracked nearly 6,000 children in Britain over five years showed about a quarter had a weight problem when they entered secondary school.
''Children who joined the study at age 11 and were already plump did not slim down at all over the five years of follow-up,'' said team head Professor Jane Wardle.
The research, published online by the British Medical Journal, suggests that by the age of 11 a tendency to be overweight or obese is already set.
''It looked like obesity at 11 is already persistent obesity, so these things are being set earlier than we had previously thought,'' she told Reuters.
Although the findings related to British children, Wardle said there is no reason to suspect that the same phenomenon would not been seen in other countries.
''I think of it as being part of the whole obesity epidemic. What is happening is that persistent obesity is starting earlier and earlier,'' she added.
Health experts expect child obesity rates to soar in most parts of the world by the end of the decade. In Europe the number could reach 26 million, according to the International Obesity TaskForce (IOTF).
Overweight children face an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, raised cholesterol levels and cancer as they grow older.
Wardle and her team said 29 percent of girls were overweight or obese, which was more than in boys. It rose to 38 per cent among black girls but fell to 20 per cent for Asian females.
There was little difference in weight in boys of different ethnic origins but 31 percent of students from a deprived socio-economic background had a weight problem, according to the research.
Wardle said the gender and ethnic association with excess weight was significant and requires further research.
Changes in diet, less exercise and too much time spent in front of television and computer screens have been blamed for the obesity rise.
North America, Europe and parts of the Western Pacific have the highest prevalence of overweight children.
Wardle said the findings of the study, which was funded by the charity Cancer Research UK, highlight the need for early intervention to prevent childhood and adult obesity.
''I think society as a whole needs to take childhood obesity much more seriously,'' she added.
REUTERS CH ND0852