12 January 2012
To address growing concerns over childhood obesity, the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recently recommended that children undergo obesity screening beginning at age 6. An Expert Committee recommends starting at age 2. Analysis is needed to assess these recommendations and investigate whether there are better alternatives. We model the age- and sex-specific population-wide distribution of BMI through age 18 using National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) data. The impact of treatment on BMI is estimated using the targeted systematic review performed to aid the USPSTF. The prevalence of hypertension and diabetes at age 40 are estimated from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID). We fix the screening interval at 2 years, and derive the age- and sex-dependent BMI thresholds that minimize adult disease prevalence, subject to referring a specified percentage of children for treatment yearly. We compare this optimal biennial policy to biennial versions of the USPSTF and Expert Committee recommendations. Compared to the USPSTF recommendation, the optimal policy reduces adult disease prevalence by 3% in relative terms (the absolute reductions are <1%) at the same treatment referral rate, or achieves the same disease prevalence at a 28% reduction in treatment referral rate. If compared to the Expert Committee recommendation, the reductions change to 6 and 40%, respectively. The optimal policy treats mostly 16-year olds and few children under age 14. Our results suggest that adult disease is minimized by focusing childhood obesity screening and treatment on older adolescents.