While the nation's obesity epidemic is the target of many programs to combat it, few such programs embrace an often-overlooked subgroup -- adolescents and young adults with physical or cognitive disabilities.
"There's a higher rate of obesity in this population," says James Rimmer, professor of disability and human development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and disability specialists need to know much more about the causes and consequences of this significant health risk.
Rimmer is heading a study group to tackle those questions, funded by a five-year, $2 million grant from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.
"This is really the only study ever funded that begins to lay the foundation of how obesity begins in a disabled population, when does it begin, how does it progress and advance, and what are the anticipated consequences," Rimmer said.
Data that have been collected by various groups will be analyzed in hopes of gaining a clearer picture of the problem.
Rimmer's group will look at weight changes in youth with physical and cognitive disabilities, and see if it gets worse or better as they transition into adulthood. He hopes to tie those observations to predisposing factors and correlating effects.
"Do they have more health conditions, more hospitalizations, greater levels of social isolation, less employment?" Rimmer asks. "If we don't begin to understand obesity and all the conditions associated with it at this earlier stage of life, we could end up imposing not only a hardship on the caregiver, but on the individuals themselves as they become adults and begin to live independently. And on society as a whole, where the cost of healthcare is going to be dramatically higher."
Co-investigator Yolanda Suarez-Balacazar, professor and head of occupational therapy at UIC, will address cultural dimensions to see what effect they may have on obesity. She will also direct a team of experts that will develop cultural adaptations for promoting healthier lifestyles among minority youth with disabilities.
Rimmer and his colleagues have also assembled a panel of experts that will develop recommendations on how to adapt existing programs and strategies using federal community health grants in order to benefit younger persons with cognitive and physical disabilities.
Nearly 50 disability and health organizations have signed on to assist with the development of these physical, cognitive and policy adaptations.
"In the future, as funding agencies develop new grant announcements, they'll use our expert-based consensus, adaptations and guidelines to require that people with disabilities participate in these initiatives," Rimmer said.
University of Illinois, Chicago