Many Health Woes in Teens Seeking Obesity Surgery

Is weight loss surgery the answer for obese young people?

Posted: 11/05/2013 10:57 AM EST

U.S. teens seeking weight-loss surgery have a startling number of health problems that used to be seen only in adults, according to a major government-funded study.

Half the teens had at least four major illnesses linked with their excess weight. Three out of four had cholesterol problems; almost half had high blood pressure or joint pain; and many had diseased livers or kidneys.

These kids weighed three times more than what is considered healthy, they weren't just teens "who want to fit into that cheerleading outfit better," said Dr. Thomas Inge, the study's lead researcher and a surgeon at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

The study offers reassuring evidence that obesity surgery is generally safe for teens, echoing previous short-term research. While it is a drastic, last-ditch option, major complications including accidental injury to internal organs occurred in just 8 percent of teens. Less serious complications including bleeding and dehydration affected 15 percent of kids during the first month after surgery.

The study involved 242 teens who had surgery at five U.S. centers from 2007 through 2011. Results for the first month after surgery were released online Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. The National Institutes of Health paid for the study.

In a recent scientific statement, the American Heart Association said obesity surgery may be the most effective treatment for what it called "severe obesity" in teens, a condition it said affects about 5 percent of U.S. children and is increasing nationwide. The group's threshold for severe obesity is a body mass index of at least 35; the average BMI in the study was 51.

Because lifestyle changes and medication rarely work for such obese teens, the statement says obesity surgery should be considered for those with related health problems who are psychologically mature enough to handle it.

The new results bolster evidence from smaller studies in teens and also suggest teens may do better, at least initially, than adults. Earlier 30-day research in adults found a few deaths after obesity surgery, although the risk was no greater than for other major operations. There were no deaths in the teen study.

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(Photo:  REUTERS/Rick Wilking)

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