Youth, Obesity, and the Senses


Here is a frightening headline: “Childhood obesity increases likelihood of a cranial disorder that may cause blindness.” Kaiser-Permanente researchers looked at the medical histories of 900,000 children ages 2-19 and unearthed 78 cases of a condition called idiopathic intracranial hypertension, or IIH. It happens inside the skull, and when it happens to children the word “pediatric” is attached to the front of the phrase.

The idiopathic part of course refers to the fact that the cause is unknown, but it creates misery, in the form of headaches, blurred vision, nausea, and abnormal eye movements. In maybe one out of 10 cases, it can lead to blindness. The risk of getting IIH is, for an extremely obese child, multiplied by 16 times, compared to a normal weight child.

Still, it is a rare disease with an even more rare dreadful end result, but the pertinent information is:

The condition occurred most frequently in overweight or obese, non-Hispanic white teenage girls — 85 percent of the children with IIH were girls 11-19, nearly half were non-Hispanic white, and 73 percent were overweight or obese.

Sight is not the only sense that can be adversely affected. A 2013 study, the first of its kind, found that obese teens experience sensorineural hearing loss all up and down the frequency spectrum, and also tend to suffer from a unilateral loss of the low frequencies. The hairs of the inner ear sustain damage, possibly because of the inflammation associated with obesity.

Not long afterward, the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study determined that one out of six subjects experienced hearing loss during the 20-year study period. Brenda Goodman wrote:

Those with a higher body-mass index (BMI) or larger waist circumference faced a higher risk for hearing problems compared to normal-weight women…

Women who were obese, with BMIs between 30 and 39, were 17 percent to 22 percent more likely to report hearing loss than women whose BMIs were less than 25.Women who fell into the category of extreme obesity (BMIs over 40) had the highest risk for hearing problems — about 25 percent higher than normal-weight women.

The study author, Dr. Sharon Curhan, suggested that obesity, especially paired with high blood pressure, can obstruct blood flow. In the “metabolically active” ear, perhaps the cochlea, when damaged, is not able to heal because of that diminished blood flow.

And let’s not leave out the sense of smell. Florida State University scientists fed a high-fat diet to a bunch of mice, and found “major structural and functional changes in the olfactory system.” The report says:

It was the first time researchers had been able to demonstrate a solid link between a bad diet and a loss of smell… Mice exposed to high-fat diets only had 50 percent of the neurons that could operate to encode odor signals.

Confusion arises from this, because four years before, a University of Portsmouth study of human subjects found that overweight people have a greatly enhanced sense of smell, at least where food is concerned. Dr. Lorenzo Stafford hypothesized that “this keener sense of smell might compel the individual to carry on eating, even when they are full.”

On the other hand, after describing the more obvious causes for olfactory malfunction, the American Rhinologic Society says:

The loss of smell can also present as a signal for other health problems including obesity, diabetes, hypertension, malnutrition, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and Korsakoff’s psychosis (a dementia caused by severe malnutrition or alcoholism).

The fact that obesity is mentioned first must be meaningful.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Childhood obesity increases likelihood of a cranial disorder that may cause blindness,”, 05/24/16
Source: “Obesity is associated with sensorineural hearing loss in adolescents,”, 06/17/13
Source: “Obesity May Be Hard on Your Hearing, Study Says,”, 12/10/13
Source: “New research links bad diet to loss of smell,”, 07/21/14
Source: “Obesity’s Link to Sense of Smell,”, 11/15/10
Source: “Disorders of Smell & Taste,”, undated
Photo credit: John Snape via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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