Health News Casinos Linked to Lower Obesity Rates for Native American Kids -- Mary Elizabeth Dallas

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TUESDAY, March 4, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- American Indian communities that open or expand casinos have fewer children who are overweight or obese, new research suggests.

Obesity is more common among children from families with fewer financial resources. And Johns Hopkins researchers found that casinos are linked to higher family incomes, which provides kids in these areas with better access to healthy foods and recreational activities that help increase physical activity and prevent obesity.

"American Indian-owned casinos have resulted in increased economic resources for some tribes, and provide an opportunity to test whether these resources are associated with overweight and obesity," the study authors wrote. "These resources could include increased income, either via employment or per capita payments, and health-promoting community resources, such as housing, recreation and community centers and health clinics."

The researchers, led by Jessica Jones-Smith, of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, assessed the body-mass indexes (BMI) of American Indian children aged 7 to 18. The kids attended school in 117 different districts that included tribal lands in California between 2001 and 2012. BMI is a measure of body fat based on height and weight.

The researchers compared the BMIs of students living in districts with tribal lands that opened a casino or expanded an existing casino with the BMIs of students living in districts that did not undergo this type of expansion. They also considered annual household income, percentage of total poverty and total population in these areas.

Of all the school districts examined, 57 either opened or expanded a casino. Meanwhile, 24 already had a casino but did not expand it, and 36 districts did not have a casino during the study.

The researchers noted that 48 percent of the children were considered overweight or obese. The study, published March 5 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, revealed that each casino slot per person added in a district was linked to an increase in average per capita annual income, a drop in the percentage of students that were overweight or obese, and a decrease in the percentage of kids living in poverty.

The study authors suggested the link between casinos and a reduction in childhood obesity was the result of greater economic resources available in the communities. Although the study found an association between the two, however, it did not prove a cause-and-effect link.

"A casino in every neighborhood is not the answer, but increasing family income and removing other pressures that reduce the capacity of families to invest in their children should be part of the solution," Dr. Neal Halfon, of the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote in an editorial that accompanied the findings.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides more information on childhood obesity.

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