Childhood asthma researchers stumble upon a surprising obesity link

By Paul Basilio, MDLinx
Published January 20, 2017

Key Takeaways

Although young children with asthma are 51% more likely to become obese compared to children without asthma, the use of asthma rescue medications reduced the risk of obesity in children by 43%, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

For this prospective study, researchers analyzed records of more than 2,000 children in kindergarten or first grade who were not obese at the start of the Southern California Children’s Health Study (CHS). At enrollment, 13.5% of the children had asthma.

After following these children for up to 10 years, they found that 15.8% became obese. These results were then confirmed in a different group of children recruited in the 4th grade.

Researchers then analyzed several confounding factors, including ethnicity, family income, smoking exposure, or whether the children had health insurance at enrollment. These factors did not explain why the use of rescue asthma medications appeared to reduce the risk of obesity.

“The basis for this finding needs further investigation to determine if the effects are due to the direct effects of the rescue medication or an indicator of poorly controlled asthma,” said Zhanghua Chen, PhD, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral research associate of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA.

“I am not aware of any existing studies that directly examine the rescue medication's impact on weight loss in obese children. However, a small clinical trial in young men suggested that the use of beta-agonists may help to reduce the risk for obesity.”

Frank D. Gilliland, MD, PhD, senior study author and Hastings Professor of Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, noted that the rescue medication link was a surprise and warranted further study. However, he said that overall study findings reinforce the importance of early diagnosis and treatment of asthma, which may interrupt “the vicious cycle of asthma increasing the development of obesity and obesity causing increased asthma symptoms.”

Limitations of the study included parent-supplied notification of asthma diagnosis, limited information about exercise, and a lack of dietary information.

“Our future studies will aim to understand the mechanistic underpinnings of the asthma influence on childhood obesity using a multidisciplinary approach of genetics and environmental epidemiology,” said Dr. Chen, a postdoctoral research associate of preventive medicine at the university. 

This study was funded by the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the Hastings Foundation.

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