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Weight-loss surgeries among teens are on the rise, researchers say


More young people are having bariatric surgeries. The American Academy of Pediatrics has called for more access to the procedure for kids and teens struggling with obesity.

More young people between the ages of 10 and 19 are undergoing weight-loss surgeries, according to a new study. (Image credit: ©Syda Productions - stock.adobe.com)

More young people between the ages of 10 and 19 are undergoing weight-loss surgeries, according to a new study. (Image credit: ©Syda Productions - stock.adobe.com)

Even in the COVID-19 pandemic, more teens and kids have undergone bariatric surgeries to deal with obesity, researchers have found.

Metabolic and bariatric surgeries rose significantly in the first two years of the pandemic, according to a research letter published Tuesday in JAMA Pediatrics. Bariatric surgeries also rose among adults in 2021, after a drop in the previous year.

In 2021, 1,349 youths between the ages of 10 and 19 underwent metabolic and bariatric surgery, an increase of 19% compared to 2020, the researchers found. Among adults, 207,834 weight-loss surgeries were performed in 2021, an increase of 24% over the previous year.

The question of whether kids and teens should undergo weight-loss surgery has been thorny in the past, with some suggesting lifestyle modifications, such as improved diet and more exercise, represent a better option for young people. Some doctors have also been reluctant due to the risk of complications and the fact that the procedure can’t be reversed.

Sarah Messiah, an author of the paper and a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, told Time that there is continued resistance to weight-loss surgeries for pediatric patients.

“The data at this point is overwhelming that it’s effective,” Messiah told Time. “It helps these adolescents lose weight. It helps them get healthier. Why should we wait?”

There appears to be growing sentiment that teens can be good candidates for weight-loss surgery if lifestyle changes aren’t proving to be successful.

In a 2021 article in the journal, Children, researchers wrote, “Bariatric surgery should be considered in adolescents with moderate to severe obesity who have previously been treated with a lifestyle medicine approach with unsuccessful results.” The authors pointed to weight loss and improved quality of life.

The American Academy of Pediatrics said in 2019 that metabolic and bariatric surgery “has been shown to be a safe and effective strategy for groups of youth with severe obesity.”

Earlier this year, the academy issued its first guidance on treating adolescents with obesity. The academy suggests options can include guidance on nutrition, behavior therapy, and weight-loss surgery if appropriate. The guidelines stress that physicians should be proactive in helping pediatric patients with obesity.

“There is no evidence that ‘watchful waiting’ or delayed treatment is appropriate for children with obesity,” Sandra Hassink, an author of the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines, said in a statement.

Researchers in the new study pointed to the academy’s guidance of expanding access to weight-loss surgery for teens.

“Metabolic and bariatric surgery (MBS) is a safe and effective treatment,” the researchers wrote.

Obesity in children and teens can lead to lifelong health complications, including heart problems and liver and kidney disease.

In the study, the authors noted the sharp rise in obesity among young people in recent years. The severe obesity rate in young people rose from 5.6% in 2015 to 6.5% in 2018, which represents an increase of about 4.8 million young people. Hispanic young people have seen the sharpest rise in obesity rates in recent years (4.1% in 1999-2000 to 10.7% in 2017-18), followed by Black youths (6.7% in 1999-2000 to 10.2% in 2017-18).

The researchers note that weight-loss surgeries in young people have not been widely used for a host of reasons, including insurers being reluctant to provide coverage. They also cite low referral rates from physicians.

The researchers noted increases in weight-loss surgeries among teens of different racial groups. Among Black youths, the procedures increased from 182 to 258 surgeries in 2021, while procedures in Hispanic young people rose from 179 to 273 in that span. In 2021, weight-loss surgeries among White youths rose from 459 to 518.

“Results of the present study suggest cautious optimism regarding the decreasing barriers to MBS (metabolic and bariatric surgery) for those US youth in need,” the authors concluded.

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