When thinking about damage from cigarette smoke, lung disease is the most obvious concern, though there are many ways smoking can harm the body. Unfortunately, these health risks aren't just restricted to the person doing the smoking: secondhand smoke is extremely harmful, particularly to children, as it affects their development.
Researchers at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University have now found that secondhand smoke not only harms cognitive development of children but is associated with obesity as well.
There have been previous studies about the connection between childhood health and secondhand smoke, but those relied on the children's parents reporting smoke exposure. This study used blood tests to determine the child's exposure and found significant discrepancies between what the parents said and how much secondhand smoke the child actually inhaled.
The researchers studied 200 children with obesity, ages 7-11, and determined how much secondhand smoke they are exposed to. They found that the children who had the most body fat overall, particularly in the stomach, had the greatest exposure to secondhand smoke and say it could be a risk factor for developing obesity. The children who were around smoke also performed worse on every metric the researchers used to measure cognitive function.
"The take-home message is that for these children, smoke exposure was connected to two major adverse health outcomes, one above the neck and one below the neck," Catherine Davis, lead author of the study published in Childhood Obesity, explained in a news release.
Smoking and obesity create a lot of same health risks, including heart disease, certain cancers, stroke, and organ damage, among others. However, smoking also increases insulin resistance, which is especially catastrophic for those with obesity who are already at a greater risk for diabetes. While the study didn't show a connection to pre-diabetes and secondhand smoke exposure in the children, it is worth investigating at what age it will become a factor.
"All the bad things fat does to us, passive smoking makes worse," co-author Martha Tingen continued. "And children who were exposed to second-hand smoke scored poorer on all cognitive tests."
The lower scores on the cognitive tests directly translate to lower attention span and decreased success at school. The children who participated in the study were of the age when academic habits really begin to take shape, which puts unnecessary obstacles in their paths.
"We are talking about a recipe for an unhealthy child who becomes an unhealthy adult who cannot reach their full potential," Tingen explained.
Smoking near obese children is a one-two punch that anyone should be concerned about, made worse by the fact that children are often not able to control their own exposure to smoke. Essentially, it is robbing the children of getting the best start they possibly can in life, which is typically a parent's goal. By more completely understanding the role that secondhand smoke exposure plays in a child's health and brain function, pediatricians can make more thorough recommendations to the parents in order to boost cognitive function and return to a healthy weight.
In 2015, the United Kingdom made a bold move to decrease the amount of smoke children were exposed to by banning smoking in vehicles when there are children present. Should the U.S. make a similar move? Let us know in the comments!
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