8: No. 2, March 2011
James H. Rimmer, PhD; Kiyoshi Yamaki, PhD; Brienne M. Davis, MPH; Edward Wang, PhD; Lawrence C. Vogel, MD
Suggested citation for this article: Rimmer JH, Yamaki K, Davis BM, Wang E, Vogel LC. Obesity and overweight prevalence
among adolescents with disabilities. Prev Chronic Dis 2011;8(2):A41.
http://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2011/mar/10_0099.htm. Accessed [date].
We examined overweight and obesity prevalence among adolescents with disabilities by disability type (physical vs cognitive) and demographic factors (sex, age,
Parents (N = 662) of adolescents aged 12 to 18 years with disabilities from 49 states responded to an online survey from September 2008 through March 2009.
Prevalence of obesity among adolescents with physical and cognitive disabilities (17.5%) was significantly higher compared
with that among adolescents without disabilities (13.0%). Obesity prevalence was higher among males, 18-year-olds, and youths with cognitive disabilities
than among females, younger adolescents, and youths with physical disabilities.
The higher prevalence of obesity among youths with disabilities compared with nondisabled youths, particularly in certain subgroups, requires further examination in future surveillance research.
Back to top
Youths with disabilities account for 9.2%, or 6 million, school-aged children in the United States (1). The epidemic of childhood obesity observed in youths without disabilities (2) may be an even
more serious health issue for youths with disabilities. Compared with youths
without disabilities, youths with disabilities are generally less physically active (3) and their lifestyle health behaviors (eg, social participation, parent supervision, diet) are often markedly different (4).
Several secondary health conditions reported by youths and adults with disabilities, including chronic pain, social isolation, depression, falls or other injuries, and extreme fatigue, are likely to worsen with excess weight (5-8). Being or becoming obese in addition to having a physical or cognitive disability could impose greater demands on the person and the caregiver in performing activities of daily living and instrumental activities of daily living, and could increase health care
costs associated with the multiple health effects of having a disability and being obese (9).
Previous studies in select groups of youths with disabilities (10-12) and youths who report having a chronic condition (13) have confirmed that obesity rates are higher in this population. However,
there is little, if any, research that compares obesity prevalence by age group, race/ethnicity, and disability type (physical vs cognitive). The main objective of this study was to determine the prevalence of obesity and overweight among youths with disabilities by sex, race/ethnicity, age, and
disability type. Results are compared with available data for youths without disabilities.
Back to top
From September 2008 through March 2009, parents who had an adolescent aged 12 to 18 years with a disability were recruited for this cross-sectional study from national and local disability and health advocacy organizations, the subscriber list of a magazine
for parents of children with disabilities, and a disability-related independent website. Recruitment methods included blast e-mails,
web-banner advertisements, and flyers. Eligibility criteria were having a child aged 12 to 18 years with a
disability, living in the United States, and being able to speak, read, or understand English. Exclusion criteria were living outside the United States and
having family members who did not read or speak English. Recruitment materials directed eligible family members (eg,
parents) to visit the survey website and respond to questions regarding the
health status of their child. The research protocol was reviewed and approved by
the University of Illinois at Chicago institutional review board. One of the
main outcomes of interest was obesity and overweight prevalence between
adolescents with physical disabilities and those with cognitive disabilities.
Height, weight, and disability data were obtained from an online survey related to the health and lifestyles of youths with disabilities. The survey had 32 items, including height, weight, and disability classification. Only the height and weight data are reported in this study.
Disability information was collected using categories of disabilities noted in the federal definition of youths who are eligible for special education services (1). Parents were asked to select up to 3 conditions associated with their child’s disability from this list of conditions: autism spectrum disorder; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; blindness or vision problems;
deaf-blind; Down syndrome; epilepsy or seizures; head injury; impairment or
deformity of foot or leg; impairment or deformity of hand, arm, or finger;
learning disability; mental retardation (referred to in this article as
intellectual disability, in light of recent initiatives to abandon the use of
this term); mental or emotional problem or disorder; missing legs, feet, hands, arms, or fingers; paralysis of any kind; spina bifida; spinal cord injury; and “other.”
Body weight status
Height, weight, and birth date of adolescents, reported by a parent, were used to obtain body mass index (BMI). A percentile ranking of each adolescent’s raw BMI score relative to age- and sex-specific national norms was obtained by using the criteria established by the 2000 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Growth Charts for the United States
(14). On the basis of the obtained percentile ranking, BMI status was classified into the following 4
categories: obese (BMI ≥95th percentile), overweight (BMI ≥85th percentile and <95th percentile), healthy weight (BMI <85th percentile and ≥5th percentile), and underweight (BMI <5th percentile) (15).
The difference in body weight status among the study subjects by demographics and mobility status (ie, use of an aid such as
a wheelchair or other assistive device) was examined by using χ2 tests and SPSS version 16 (SPSS
Inc, Chicago, Illinois). From a descriptive framework only, we compared our data
with the population-based data obtained from the 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) (15). Level of significance was set at .05.
Back to top
Almost all of the family members who responded to the survey were mothers (91.2%), followed by a small number of fathers (6.5%), grandparents (1.1%), and other family or nonfamily members (1.3%). The largest reported subgroup was autism spectrum disorder, followed by cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and intellectual disability
(Table 1). Males and whites were overrepresented in the study group compared with the YRBS sample.
Youths with disabilities in our survey had a higher prevalence of obesity compared with youths in the YRBS (17.5% vs 13.0%)
(Table 2). In our
survey, the rate for males was significantly higher than for females (19.8% vs 13.3%, χ2 [1, 645] = 4.3, P = .04). Youths with disabilities also had a higher rate of
obesity than youths in the YRBS when analyzed by sex and race/ethnicity. These differences between the 2 groups across age groups were observed at ages 15 (18.9% vs 13.8%) and 18 years
(25.3% vs 12.0%). Within the group of youths with disabilities, blacks and Hispanics also had a higher prevalence of obesity than other ethnic groups but the differences were not significant. The prevalence of obesity for 18-year-old youths with disabilities (25.3%) was significantly higher than that
for the younger age groups with disabilities (χ2 [1, 645] = 4.0, P = .04). Youths with cognitive disabilities had a significantly higher rate of obesity compared with youths
with physical disabilities (21.1% vs 10.1%, χ2 [1, 645] = 11.7, P < .001).
When compared with youths in the YRBS, youths with disabilities had a higher prevalence of overweight among
females, whites, and 17-year-olds.
Back to top
The higher rate of obesity among adolescents with disabilities compared with
that among adolescents without disabilities supports the existing literature (12,16) and extends this research by
identifying substantial differences between age groups, males and females, and youths with physical versus cognitive disabilities. In particular, our findings showed that the 18-year-old group had the highest obesity rates compared with the younger age groups. This is a potential indicator that obesity may
be tracking into adulthood.
The significantly higher rate of obesity among youths with cognitive disabilities compared with
that among youths with physical disabilities requires further research. One reason for this difference may be related to the potential error associated with BMI in youths with physical disabilities who have some form of paralysis (eg, cerebral palsy, spina bifida). Several studies on adults with spinal cord injury have confirmed that BMI is not an accurate indicator of obesity for
adults with some form of
paralysis (17,18). McDonald et al (19)
also reported that BMI cutoff criteria in adolescents with spinal cord
injury significantly underestimate obesity in this population, and they
recommended that more research be done on youths with physical disabilities to determine the
most appropriate cutoffs for obesity and overweight to compensate for the loss in lean body mass associated with paralysis.
Our findings are limited by the use of a convenience sample and the overrepresentation of families who were able to complete an online survey; who were from a more educated, higher socioeconomic status; and
who were predominantly white. This overrepresentation limits the
generalizability of our findings to the broader population of youths with disabilities.
Also, the extent to which our data are directly comparable to the
population-based YRBS data is not known. Future research must identify ways to
target a higher percentage of minority youths with disabilities. As with most self-reported data on height and weight in adolescents and adults, there is a tendency to
underestimate overweight prevalence compared
with measured data (20).
The higher prevalence of obesity in youths with disabilities underscores the need to enhance data surveillance systems (eg, YRBS) using consistent disability definitions so that interventions can be targeted to youths with the greatest need. Most of the recent attention on obesity has focused on the epidemic of childhood obesity among youths without disabilities
(21); less attention has been
given to youths with disabilities. Decreasing the incidence of obesity among youths with
disabilities must become as important a national priority as it is for youths without disabilities. Federal and private funding agencies must ensure that future obesity-related policy and environmental initiatives recognize the needs of families who have a child with a disability and who may need certain adaptations or accommodations to access existing health promotion programs offered in their schools and communities. Engaging families, and whenever possible youths with disabilities, in
developing new strategies to reduce obesity must occur on the front end rather than back end (ie, after the program is installed) to provide greater assurance that new initiatives will be accessible and appropriate for youths with disabilities.
Back to top
Preparation of this manuscript was supported by grant no. H133A100011 from the US Department of Education, National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.
Back to top
Corresponding Author: James H. Rimmer, PhD, Professor, Director, Center on Health Promotion Research for Persons with Disabilities, Department of Disability and Human Development, University of Illinois at Chicago, 1640 West Roosevelt Rd, Chicago, IL 60608-6904. Telephone: 312-413-9651. E-mail:
Author Affiliations: Kiyoshi Yamaki, Brienne M. Davis, Department of Disability and Human Development, Chicago, Illinois; Edward Wang, College of Nursing, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, Illinois; Lawrence C. Vogel, Shriners
Hospital for Children, Chicago, Illinois.
Back to top
- Twenty-fifth annual report to Congress on the implementation of the
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Washington (DC): US Department
of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services; 2005.
- Daniels SR, Jacobson MS, McCrindle BW, Eckel RH, Sanner BM.
American Heart Association
Childhood Obesity Research Summit report [published correction appears
in Circulation 2009;120(2):e14-5]. Circulation 2009;119:e489-517.
- Rimmer JH, Rowland JL.
for youth with disabilities: a critical need in an underserved population. Dev Neurorehabil 2008;11(2):141-8.
- Steele CA, Kalnins IV, Jutai JW, Stevens SE, Bortolussi JA, Biggar WD. Lifestyle health behaviours of 11- to 16-year-old youth with physical disabilities. Health Educ Res 1996;11(2):173-86.
- Bauman WA. Secondary conditions with spinal cord injury. In: Field MJ, Jette AM, Martin L, editors. Workshop on disability in America:
a new look. Washington (DC): National Academies Press; 2006. p. 222-33.
- Kinne S, Patrick DL, Doyle DL.
Prevalence of secondary conditions among people with disabilities. Am J Public Health 2004;94(3):443-5.
- The 2005 Surgeon General’s call to action to improve the health and
wellness of persons with disabilities. Rockville (MD): US Department of
Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General; 2005.
- Simeonsson RJ, McMillen JS, Huntington GS.
Secondary conditions in children with disabilities: spina bifida as a case example. Ment Retard Dev Disabil Res Rev 2002;8(3):198-205.
- Young NL, Steele C, Fehlings D, Jutai J, Olmsted N, Williams JI.
Use of health care among adults with chronic and complex physical disabilities
of childhood. Disabil Rehabil 2005;27(23):1455-60.
- Bandini LG, Schoeller DA, Fukagawa NK, Wykes LJ, Dietz WH.
Body composition and energy expenditure in adolescents with cerebral palsy or myelodysplasia. Pediatr Res 1991;29(1):70-7.
- Curtin C, Anderson SE, Must A, Bandini L.
The prevalence of obesity in children with autism: a secondary data analysis using nationally representative data from the National Survey of Children’s Health. BMC Pediatr 2010;10:11.
- Rimmer JH, Rowland JL, Yamaki K.
Obesity and secondary conditions in adolescents with disabilities:
addressing the needs of an underserved population. J Adolesc Health 2007;41(3):224-9.
- Chen AY, Kim SE, Houtrow AJ, Newacheck PW.
Prevalence of obesity among children with chronic conditions. Obesity
(Silver Spring) 2010;18(1):210-3.
- Kuczmarski RJ, Ogden CL, Guo SS,
Grummer-Strawn LM, Flegal KM, Mei Z, et al.
2000 CDC growth charts for the United States:
methods and development. Vital Health Stat
- Eaton DK, Kann L, Kinchen S, Shanklin S, Ross J, Hawkins J, et al.
Youth risk behavior surveillance — United States, 2007. MMWR Surveill
- Bandini LG, Curtin C, Hamad C, Tybor DJ, Must A.
Prevalence of overweight in children with developmental disorders in the continuous
National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 1999-2002. J Pediatr 2005;146(6):738-43.
- Gater DR Jr.
Obesity after spinal cord injury. Phys Med Rehabil Clin N Am 2007;18(2):333-51,
- Laughton GE, Buchholz AC, Martin Ginis KA, Goy RE, SHAPE SCI Research
Group. Lowering body mass index cutoffs better identifies obese persons with spinal cord injury. Spinal Cord 2009;47(10):757-62.
- McDonald CM, Abresch-Meyer
AL, Nelson MD, Widman LM.
Body mass index and body composition measures by
dual x-ray absorptiometry in patients aged 10 to 21 years with spinal cord
injury. J Spinal Cord Med 2007;30 Suppl 1:S97-104.
- Akinbami LJ, Ogden CL.
Childhood overweight prevalence in the United States:
the impact of parent-reported height and weight. Obesity (Silver Spring) 2009;17(8):1574-80.
- Solving the problem of childhood obesity within a generation. White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity,
Report to the President. 2010. http://www.letsmove.gov/pdf/TaskForce_on_Childhood_Obesity_May2010_ FullReport.pdf.
Accessed November 29, 2010.
Back to top