Obesity & Sleep Disorders, Affect Child's Ability to Learn

A new study has shown that weight, sleeping disorders, and inability to learn are all linked with each other in children. A child who is overweight and who does not get enough sleep may have difficulty learning. Moreover, a child who has learning disabilities has a higher risk of developing obesity and sleep disorders..

Experts say that there is an association between obesity, sleep, and intelligence, but it is too early to consider that intelligence level in children may play a role in obesity and sleep disorders. Many studies have shown that obesity increases the risk of sleep apnea and other related conditions. Sleep deficiency is also shown to have a negative impact on learning, but the present study is the first of its kind to link learning, sleep, and obesity in small children.

According Karen Spruyt, PhD, of the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, sleep problems in children are often overlooked in children who have obesity or learning difficulties. She feels that obese children should be screened for sleep disorders and learning difficulties.

This study was conducted in 351 elementary school children who were 8-years-old. None of the participants had diagnosed learning disabilities, and none of them were taking ADHD drugs. “All the participants took up intelligence tests that focused on traits associated with learning, such as memory, working memory, planning, problem solving, and attention”, adds Spruyt. Sleep disorders were evaluated in the sleep lab where the children slept for one night. The interaction between learning, sleep disorders, and body weight was analyzed using structural equation modelling. The results of the analysis showed that each of the variables influenced the other.

The results highlighted the following:

  • Lack of sleep increased the risk of obesity and lower scores in intelligence tests. 
  • Obesity increased the risk of lower learning scores and sleep disorders
  • Lower learning scores influenced the risk of obesity and sleep problems.

As all the participants were developmentally normal, the study does not report the effect of obesity and sleep problems in children with diagnosed learning disabilities.

Dietitian Nancy Copperman, MS, RD, director of public health initiatives at the North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, says that the impact of obesity on sleep and the association between poor sleep and higher body weight is known. The present study highlights impact of poor sleep and higher body weight on learning. Sleep is one factor that should be considered when the child has difficulty in learning, but one of the results of the study suggests that intelligence may protect from obesity and sleep problems has to be confirmed by other studies. Many children who are overweight do not have any learning disabilities, while many others who are normal weight may have learning disabilities.