CHICAGO — 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.
They weighed three times more than what is considered healthy; they didn’t just “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. While it is a drastic option, major complications including accidental injury to organs occurred in just 8 percent of teens. Less serious complications including bleeding and dehydration affected 15 percent.
The study involved 242 teens who had surgery from 2007 through 2011. Results for the first month after surgery were released online Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
The new results also suggest they might do better, at least initially, than adults.
Whether obesity surgery resulted in lasting weight loss and better health in teens remains to be seen; researchers are still following the participants and calculating data. Anecdotal reports suggest they’re doing pretty well.
Chelsea Hale, of Cincinnati, has shrunk from 314 to 170 pounds since having surgery three years ago at age 17. Before surgery, Hale had a hormonal problem, heart blockage and sleep apnea, all linked with obesity, and all have subsided.
“I feel good, I can pretty much physically do anything,” she said.
Like 28 percent of the teens studied, she had gastric sleeve surgery, which involves removing part of the stomach and creating a smaller sleeve-shaped stomach. She has to eat only small portions of foods to avoid getting sick.
Some teens in the study say they can no longer tolerate certain foods. Most had gastric bypass or stomach stapling.
Inge, a pioneer in obesity surgery in teens, says he does about 30 to 40 operations each year at Cincinnati Children’s and the numbers have increased slightly in recent years.
Kids must be severely obese to qualify. But many are so large that even when surgery results in substantial weight loss and better health, they can’t shrink their BMI to below the obese range, Inge said. That underscores the need to find ways to prevent severe obesity, he said.
University of Colorado heart specialist Dr. Robert Eckel, an American Heart Association spokesman, said the study shows obesity surgery should be considered a reasonable approach for kids, but that the study results might represent a best-case scenario, because surgeons involved were all highly experienced.
Parents seeking obesity surgery for their teens should have them evaluated in centers that do lots of these operations, he said.