NEW ORLEANS — Dr. Melinda Sothern will be able to advance her work identifying early predictors for obesity and diabetes and making links between biological, social and behavioral indicators for those conditions, thanks to a $675,000 grant from that National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities.

Sothern is a professor and director of the Behavioral and Community Health Services Program at the LSU Health Sciences Center New Orleans School of Public Health.

Five years ago, Sothern studied early predictors of diabetes and obesity in a group of 210 children 7 to 9 years old. About two-thirds of the youngsters were at a healthy weight, and 34 percent were categorized as obese, she said.

The children came from across southern Louisiana, and were close to matching the region demographically.

Sothern said she used state-of-the-art technology to measure fat tissue, muscle tissue and bone weight, as well as using advanced blood analysis to look for genetic predictors.

The study was the first to document the occurrence of excessive fat inside liver cells in children as young as 7.

Sothern said they discovered the obese children had three times the liver fat as the children who were at a healthy weight.

Once a person’s metabolism is disrupted, Sothern said, it can start a “vicious cycle” in the body’s ability to handle insulin.

Now, with the grant, Sothern and her team have contacted more than 100 of the original test subjects and will be bringing them back for a three-year study to track their bodies’ changes from before puberty into adolescence.

Sothern said the study is the first of its kind in terms of the sophistication of the medical tests, the focus on children and their growth to adolescence, and the inclusiveness of all variables: genetics, behavior and environment.

Looking closely at the environmental factors is of particular interest, Sothern said. Not only do researchers record information about the eating and exercise behaviors of the kids, but also the number of fast-food restaurants in the neighborhood, access to fresh fruits and vegetables, and access to parks and playgrounds.

Sothern also looks at poverty, violence in the home and crime in the neighborhood as elements that may contribute to higher stress and prevent outdoor play.

The study will help show what factors push children to be more prone toward obesity and diabetes and what factors can prevent it.

Sothern said there have been studies that show connections between unsafe neighborhoods and a higher risk of obesity and diabetes, but the causes on a scientific level remain unknown.

Other variables that Sothern said she has been recording are the health and habits of the mother immediately before pregnancy and during pregnancy, whether or not they breast-fed and their baby’s birth weight.

While it is known that African-American children and children raised in poverty are more at risk for obesity-related diseases, Sothern said that scientifically, the exact reasons are still speculative, and called the continuation of her study “really important and really exciting.”

By combining so many variables, Sothern said, the study will break new ground in scientific research. “We have not left anything out of this study,” she said.

According to the American Public Health Association, Sothern said, $142 billion is spent annually on health costs associated with the overweight and obese.

The cost of treating obesity-related diseases is predicted to reach $860 billion to $956 billion by the year 2030, Sothern said.

Louisiana has one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the country, and Sothern said that if the state continues on its current track, some studies predict dire consequences — including the older generation outliving its children, and a population in which everyone is overweight.

Ultimately, Sothern said, she hopes the results of the study will affect policy. While there are public policies in place that address keeping neighborhoods safe and providing children access to healthy food options and places to play, Sothern said many are unfunded, and the issues are not a high enough priority.

Changing policies and priorities can also change attitudes and perceptions, she said.

The younger the age at which scientists can predict and understand the causes of obesity-related diseases, the better the chance of properly diagnosing, treating and, ideally, preventing potential health problems, Sothern said.

Sothern said it’s her goal to provide the scientific evidence to advance a vision in which government, industry and families work together to insist on healthier living conditions for children.