Add obesity to the list of problems teen moms have to worry about. Women who give birth as teenagers are more likely to become obese than women who don’t have children in their teens, researchers from the University of Michigan reported in a study released late last week.
Though teen pregnancy rates in the U.S. are declining, it is still a huge problem — a 2008 study estimates that 20 percent of women in the U.S. give birth before age 20. Teen pregnancy is also associated with multiple social and economic costs. According to the CDC, taxpayers pay about $11 billion per year in teen pregnancy related healthcare expenses, and teenage mothers are more likely to have low academic achievement. Obesity comes with its own set of problems: people who are significantly overweight are at greater risk for heart disease, diabetes, stroke, certain cancers, high blood pressure and other illnesses. The new research, published in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, is the first to establish teen pregnancy as a risk factor for obesity later in life.
Dr. Tammy Chang, a clinical lecturer in the department of family medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School and lead author on the paper, hopes that her work will lead to more research on the link between teen pregnancy and obesity, and help guide medical and policy interventions that will improve the health of teen mothers.
“When taking care of teen moms, we often have so many immediate concerns — child care, housing, school, social and financial support — that we don’t often think about the long-term health effects of teen pregnancy,” she said in a statement.
Researchers examined health data from women aged 20 to 59 as reported in a national survey spanning 10 years. Because race, socioeconomic status and education are often associated with both obesity and teen pregnancy, the researchers controlled for those variables in their model. To keep the model realistic, the researchers did not adjust for diet or physical activity. They found that approximately 44 percent of women who had given birth as teenagers were obese compared to 35 percent of women who had not. Women who were older at the time of the survey were also more likely to be obese.
The study did not attempt to establish a causal relationship between teen pregnancy and obesity, it only indicated that the two are connected. Furthermore, the current study cannot tell us whether the women were overweight before or during their teen years, or when exactly they gained the weight, since the survey only covered health data from years after the pregnancy. Studies have shown that once a person becomes obese, especially in adolescence, it is difficult to return to a healthy weight. The indices of both teen pregnancy and obesity in the U.S. are higher than they are in most other developed countries, and the link between the two is troubling.
One obvious solution is to increase the accessibility of birth control and sex education. Perhaps not coincidentally, states that offer abstinence only sex education — such as Mississippi — have the highest rates of both teen pregnancy and obesity. The researchers also suggest expanding eligibility for family planning services under Medicaid in order to combat obesity, since teen pregnancy largely affects women of low-income who depend on public health coverage.
Teen pregnancy is a stubborn problem, however. Other recent research has indicated that teen mothers often have more children in the years immediately following their first pregnancy. Teen pregnancy has also been correlated with childhood trauma, and is not likely to be solved while we still have high levels of economic inequality. Since teens will continue to become pregnant, the researchers recommend incorporating programs that promote healthy weight and nutrition into prenatal care for teens — interventions that are not currently widely used.
Teen moms in the U.S. are woefully undeserved. By bringing the additional threat of obesity to light — and all of the health risks associated with it — the new study begs us to turn our attention to helping young women avoid teen pregnancy altogether and providing better care once they become pregnant.