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Why Weight Loss Surgery for Teens Is Recommended: One Teen’s Story

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Obese teens suffering from early disease onset of adult illnesses.

Weight loss surgery for teens sounds like a bad idea to most people. Here’s the latest on what one study found comparing surgical and non-surgical treatments of obese teens that includes one teen’s story and how weight loss surgery saved her life.

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Teen Obesity Creates Adult-Sized Health Problems

“They’re young—let them work their excess weight off,” is a common argument against weight loss surgery for youths. However, the answer to a growing problem is not that simple and delaying successful treatment of weight problems in young people is actually harming them according to a new study that compared surgical and non-surgical treatments of obese teens and what the researchers discovered.

According to health experts, the incidence of teen obesity is increasing at an alarming rate. And as a result, developing type 2 diabetes at an early age is leading to health problems for teens that are normally not seen until later in adulthood—including the risk of dying prematurely.

A news release from Children’s Hospital Colorado tells us that bariatric surgery might be their only realistic hope for a longer life.

"The incidence of youth-onset type 2 diabetes is increasing in the U.S., translating to premature mortality from cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases such as diabetic kidney disease," said Peter Bjornstad, MD, an endocrinologist at Children's Colorado and one of the study's authors.

"Bariatric surgery is currently the only treatment available for youth with severe obesity and type 2 diabetes that results in considerable and durable weight loss and improvement in blood sugar levels in the majority of patients. With this study, our intent was to further demonstrate the benefits of bariatric surgery in adolescents by proving that it also leads to significantly lower long-term risks of cardiovascular disease."

This warning is the result of a recently published study in Surgery for Obesity and Related Diseases, where researchers at Children's Hospital Colorado determined that the long-term risk of cardiovascular events including heart attack, congestive heart failure, stroke and coronary death was reduced by almost threefold for teenagers with type 2 diabetes who underwent bariatric surgery compared to those whose diabetes was only managed medically.

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Surgery vs Traditional Weight Management Therapy

In the study, two groups of obese teens were chosen from two multi-center studies referred to as “Teen LABS” (Teen-Longitudinal Assessment of Bariatric Surgery) and “TODAY” (Type 2 Diabetes in Adolescents and Youth) that included:

• 30 Teen-LABS participants, all of whom underwent bariatric surgery and had type 2 diabetes at the time of surgery
• 63 TODAY participants, all of whom had received medical treatment for type 2 diabetes

One difference between the two groups is that the Teen-LABS participants had a significantly higher pre-treatment risk for cardiovascular disease than the TODAY participants, with higher blood pressure and cholesterol levels at the outset.

What the researchers found was that the Teen-LABS group health improved significantly with bariatric surgery in comparison to the TODAY participants who the received medical therapy alone, which according to the study “…was actually associated with an increase in risk among adolescents with type 2 diabetes and severe obesity.”

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"The high cardiovascular disease risk observed in TODAY participants, despite their lower baseline BMI, underscores the inadequacy of standard medical therapy in mitigating the risk of cardiovascular events, and calls for more aggressive therapy in this at-risk population," said Thomas H. Inge, MD, PhD, Teen-LABS principal investigator, and director of pediatric surgery and the bariatric center at Children's Colorado.

"While longer-term studies are needed to determine whether the risk score predictions hold true, the long-term cardiovascular health prospects associated with bariatric surgery in adolescents appear to be very positive."

To be fair, however, not all health experts are onboard with the idea of treating teen obesity with bariatric surgery. Some voiced concerns in reviews of this and similar studies pointing out that in some cases adolescents have required re-interventions, suffered from nutritional deficiencies, and have wound up regaining even more weight over time—facts faced by adults undergoing bariatric surgery as well.

Weight Loss Surgery and One Teen’s Story

As an affirmation that weight loss surgery is a real medical need for at least some youths who are at risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and other life-threatening conditions, Children’s Hospital Colorado offers a view of one teen’s story about her experiences with having weight loss surgery. The following is a summary of the events that includes some highly recommended videos to help others understand what to expect from surgery and the potential benefits it offers.

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Possibly the biggest message for people to understand about teen bariatric surgery is that evidence shows that for many with obesity it is not only their best hope for a normal life, but that the sooner surgical treatment is done—the better it is for their health in the long term.

In fact, from a study involving more than 600 youths diagnosed as obese, 15 years after their diagnosis, many are found to be developing eye disease, kidney disease, and high blood pressure—conditions they are experiencing at age 25 or 30, instead of 60.

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According to the true-life story:

Mona Ramos was always active. She ran track and field and played softball in high school, all four years. She loved hiking and the outdoors. She worked on her feet and did well in school, and so what if she also loved Starbucks and Hot Cheetos? She liked how she looked. Lots of people did.

"My mother, her grandmother, she always tells Mona how beautiful she is," says Liz, Mona's mom. "She's like, 'You've got to embrace those curves, mija.'"
But when Mona started gaining weight at age 15, Liz worried. She'd been overweight herself. She'd had the sleep apnea and type 2 diabetes that came with it. Mona's grandmother had diabetes, too. So did her grandfather and three of her aunts.

It got worse after graduation. Without the structure of sports, Mona would go to the gym every now and then, but it wasn't much fun. She'd give up soda or Starbucks. She even tried Weight Watchers. She'd lose a few pounds, but then her weight would level off and she'd get discouraged. A sleep study turned into a CPAP machine. Her blood sugar climbed to pre-diabetic levels.

Mona was at risk of prematurely developing many health conditions that are more typical of older Americans.

At age 19, she couldn't spend five minutes walking without getting tired. She'd sweat just shopping for groceries. For a girl who prided herself on being active, it was embarrassing. She got depressed. And the depression led to more weight.

It was not an easy decision for Mona to decide to pursue weight loss surgery, but after much consideration involving her family and heath care workers, she had the surgery.

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“…surgery was Mona's best option, and she ultimately decided to do it. It's not quite what she thought it would be. She knew she wouldn't be able to eat like she did anymore, but the change is drastic. She can't eat two bites of a hamburger. Even drinking too much water at once makes her feel full.

But she lost 10 lbs. just following the surgery prep recommendations, and she's been losing about 10 lbs. a month ever since. Dr. Inge thinks she'll lose 85 lbs. before she's done. And that hope makes the difference. She's back to hiking. She hits the gym every day. Last month, she even did the Manitou Incline, a grueling gain of 2,000 feet in less than a mile along an old washed out funicular track on a mountainside just west of Colorado Springs.

"I was tired, but I did it," she says. "That felt really good. I know if I didn't have the surgery, I wouldn't be able to do half the things I'm doing now."

Informative YouTube Videos About Weight Loss Surgery

For more about Mona’s experience and what others can expect with weight loss surgery, the following YouTube videos from the Children’s Hospital Colorado website are very informative and offer some perspective over whether weight loss surgery is really a life-saving necessity for teens with obesity.

For more information supporting the view that receiving weight loss surgery earlier in life is more beneficial than later in life, here is a recent supporting article titled “Weight Loss and When Your Doctor Tells You That You Have Type 2 Diabetes.”

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with an eye on the latest news, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on what you need to know for healthier living. For continual updates about health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image Source: Courtesy of Anja from Pixabay

References:

Research shows impact of bariatric surgery on cardiovascular disease risk in obese teens” Children’s Hospital Colorado news release 10 Dec. 2020.

Bariatric Surgery and the Progression of Type 2 Diabetes in Teens” Children’s Hospital Colorado Bariatric Surgery Center, January 10, 2019.

Effect of surgical versus medical therapy on estimated cardiovascular event risk among adolescents with type 2 diabetes and severe obesity” Justin R. Ryder, Ph.D. et al Surgery for Obesity and Related Diseases published 8 Sept. 2020.

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