A recent study led by a researcher at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital sheds light on the impact of obesity on young boys. 

The study — which was performed by the Pediatric Research in Office Settings network of the American Academy of Pediatrics — suggests that obese young males experience the onset of puberty later, while overweight boys experience puberty early.

Dr. Joyce Lee, M.D., M.P.H., an associate professor at the medical school and pediatric endocrinologist at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, led the study. In an interview, Lee said as a pediatric endocrinologist, she sees a lot of children with growth and puberty issues, including some who are overweight or struggling with obesity.

“There’s been a longstanding history of a lot of questions about the impact of weight on timing of puberty in kids and so that’s why we did the study,” Lee said.

According to the study abstract, the PROS had preexisting data that measured height, weight, testicular volume and other pubertal variables in 3,600 American boys, ages six to 16. Approximately half of the boys were white, 25.8 percent were African American and 24.3 percent were Hispanic.

Lee’s investigation reanalyzed the PROS data. The study’s official paper explains the research team “classified children based on body mass index as normal weight, overweight, or obese and compared median age at a given Tanner stage or greater by weight class.”

Though the results of the study were not entirely consistent, particularly in regard to estrogen levels — a variable that was speculated about this study but not actually analyzed — researchers were still able to use their data to make associations between weight and puberty.

“I think you need multiple studies to prove these associations,” Lee said. “One study is not going to cut it. I think the advantage to this study was that it was racially diverse, it was quite large, and it was a previously unanalyzed with respect to the types of associations (we made). This is probably going to be the biggest study of boys’ puberty that will ever happen in the U.S.”

Lee also noted the gender variances in similar studies, and said a unique characteristic of her research is the separation of groups within genders in the study.

“Pretty much, uniformly, all studies corroborate that the heavier you are, the earlier you go into puberty as a girl,” she said. “But there was a lot of debate about what happens in boys, and it’s partly because boys are just less studied because it’s harder to measure puberty. The bottom line is that some studies suggest that heavier weight leads to an earlier onset of puberty in boys, and some have suggested that it’s actually a later onset. But no one actually separates out the overweight boys from the obese boys and so that’s what we were able to do with this study.”

LSA senior Stuart Hammond, who is president of the Pre-Medical Club and an Resident Advisor for the Michigan Research Community, said studies like this provide a multifacted introduction to research. 

“With things like smoking or obesity or even sexual health practices, there’s this really interesting interplay between social practices, socioeconomic status, and on the flip side you have this more medical side of things,” Hammond said. “In the Michigan Research Community, not only are students participating in research but they’re also in a course centered on research ethics, research practice, the academic aspects of research — teaching them how to read and interpret scientific papers, how to add to them without plagiarizing, things like that.”

Hammond added that he believed the study is important because it shows that medical research can have practical applications and is intersectional.  

“For students in medicine, oftentimes they think of research as a really hands-on, intense scientific process, or working in a lab alongside practicing physicians — things like that,” he said. “And I think one thing that a lot of students realize through research is that they don’t need to be doing something really intensely scientific to learn about health care. We’ll see students working in sociology and psychology labs or even economics work, and through those experiences, they come to realize just how much their various topics that they’re researching actually pertain to their interest in health care. I think that’s why research like this is so important. It adds an extra dimension to their medical studies.”    

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