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Could lifesaving antibiotics be killing us via obesity?

Are antibiotics fattening up our children? A recent study suggests that antibiotics might encourage weight gain.

There is perhaps no graver health threat for the United States, and indeed much of the developed world, than obesity. Numerous deadly and costly diseases, such as diabetes, have been linked to being overweight, and even in spite of public health efforts, obesity rates continue to climb. Now, researchers have found a disturbing link between obesity among children and antibiotics.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University found a strong link between antibiotic doses given to children and an increased likelihood of weight gain. In a study, they found that children who received seven or more antibiotic doses during their childhood were much more likely to be overweight.

The research was led by Brian S. Schwartz, a renowned professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Schwartz and his team examined electronic health records for more than 160,000 children from the Geisinger Health system’s electronic database.

The children examined were aged between three and 18 years old during the time period spanning from January 2001 to February 2012. Schwartz’s team found that those children who were prescribed antibiotics 7 times or more during their childhood were, on average, heavier than those children who had been prescribed no antibiotics.

In fact, children who had been prescribed antibiotics at least 7 times before the age of 15 were, on average, three pounds heavier by the time they were 15 years old. The researchers also found that approximately 21 percent of the children, roughly 30,000 of them, had been prescribed antibiotics at least seven times during their childhood.

The researchers also found evidence that the effects of antibiotics may be cumulative. Those children who received frequent doses of antibiotics in their childhood may be more likely to suffer from increased weight gain later in life as a result.

Scientists believe that antibiotics could be affecting our body’s microbiota, which refers to the colonies of bacteria and other microbes that live in our body. Many bacterias are essential components of our digestive system. It’s possible that antibiotics are disrupting our fragile microbiota.

Weight gain among children probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The livestock industry has long fed high amounts of antibiotics to animals, such as cows and chickens, to encourage them to “fatten” up.

Obesity is a major issue among American children, and children around the world. In 1980, 5 percent of adolescents aged 12 to 19 were obese. By 2012, this number had risen to 21 percent.

In fact, obesity is now a bigger risk factor for death than malnutrition, and it has been for some years. The World Health Organization’s Burden of Disease report found that in 2010 obesity was the 6th leading cause of premature death, while malnutrition came in at 11th.

Obesity is no small matter, and it’s certainly not a case of cosmetics and self-esteem. High body fat levels have been linked to numerous serious diseases, such as diabetes, strokes, and heart diseases. In a time of public debt and budget cuts, obesity is also a major financial burden, racking up tens of billions of dollars in additional healthcare costs.