Parental optimism about childhood obesity-related disease risks
Most parents believe childhood obesity is a problem for society, but not for their own children. We sought to understand whether parents’ risk assessment was skewed by optimism, the tendency to overestimate one’s chances of experiencing positive events.
We administered a national web-based survey to 502 parents of 5–12-year-old children. Parents reported the chances that (a) their child and (b) ‘a typical child in their community’ would be overweight or obese, and develop hypertension, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and depression in adulthood. Respondents self-reported demographic and health information, and we obtained demographic and health information about the typical child using zip code-level census and lifestyle data. We used regression models with fixed effects to evaluate whether optimism bias was present in parent predictions of children’s future health outcomes.
Parents had 40 times lower adjusted odds (OR=0.025, P<0.001, 99% CI: 0.006, 0.100) of predicting that their child (versus a typical child) would be overweight or obese in adulthood. Of the 20% of parents who predicted their child would be overweight in adulthood, 93% predicted the typical child would also be overweight in adulthood. Controlling for health and demographic characteristics, parents estimated that their children’s chances of developing obesity-related comorbidities would be 12–14 percentage points lower those that of a typical child.
Parent risk assessment is skewed by optimism, among other characteristics. More accurate risk perception could motivate parents to engage in behavior change.