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Weight Loss Surgery for Obese Adolescents


As the number of adolescents who are overweight or obese rises, some of them are choosing weight loss surgery, also known as bariatric surgery. Not all experts agree that such surgery is a safe option for young people who are still developing, yet research indicates that the surgeries seem to be safe.

Although there are no current figures on the number of adolescents who have undergone weight loss surgery in the past few years, about 200 teenagers had the surgery in 2000, and by 2003 the number had risen to 800, according to a study conducted by investigators at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and published in the March 2007 issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. Indications are that the trend is for an increasing number of procedures performed each year.

Some indication of the number of weight loss surgeries performed in adolescents can be seen in the results of a study to be presented at the American Pediatrics Association National Conference and Exhibition on October 17, 2009, in Washington, DC. The researchers found that a total of 589 adolescents (ages 14 to 20 years) underwent weight loss surgery in California from 2005 to 2007. The in-hospital complications rate was 5.6 percent, and no deaths were reported. Although a procedure known as gastric banding has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in young people, the number of these surgeries has increased significantly, and it was one of the more popular procedures performed.

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At Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, which has one of the largest adolescent-specific bariatric surgery programs in the United States, more than 70 obese teens underwent weight loss surgery between 2001 and 2007.

The authors of the 2007 Robert Wood Johnson study found that among morbidly obese teens who turn to weight loss surgery, the procedure poses no greater risks for them than for adults, and that they recover faster than older patients. They also found that the teens had shorter hospitals stays and no in-hospital deaths, compared with a 0.2 percent mortality rate seen in adults.

Approximately 15 percent of adolescents in the United States are obese, and about 75 percent of them go on to be obese adults. Although being obese is associated with a great number of health risks, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, degenerative joint disorders, and sleep apnea, some surgeons are reluctant to perform weight loss surgery on individuals younger than eighteen because their bones have not yet fully grown and the long-term impact of the surgery on their lives is not known. Other experts believe the health risks outweigh these concerns.

Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, March 1, 2007
Jen HC et al. “Healthcare utilization by adolescents undergoing bariatric surgery.” To be presented at the American Pediatrics Association conference October 2009
Tsai WS et al. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 2007 Mar; 161(3): 217-21