Obesity is no longer a scourge plaguing the adults alone. It has now become one of the major health problems afflicting the lives of children and teenagers. The American Obesity Association reveals that in the United States alone about 1 in 5 children (ages 6-19) are obese. Obesity in pre-teens and teens has tripled in the past 3 decades and it is mostly blamed on lack of physical activity, unhealthy food choices, and family eating habits.
Early obesity can cause serious trouble in a child’s life. Aside from increasing the child’s propensity to serious medical problems such as heart diseases and stroke, it also creates social and emotional problems. A March 2012 report titled “Annals of Oncology” has revealed a positive correlation between early obesity and cancer. The study, however, was carried out on males only. Apparently, overweight male teens develop a greater risk of cancer later in life.
That is some grave news, especially for a nation struggling to combat obesity. But is there a permanent solution to early obesity?
Much experimentation is happening in a bid to kick early obesity in its fat butt. Recent headlines show that children—even as young as 12—have been undergoing surgery to lose weight. Mexican Betsy Sanchez underwent weight-loss surgery when she was 12. Two years after getting her gastric sleeve surgery in Tijuana, the girl is 32kg lighter and vouches that her life transformed for the better.
History of Gastric Sleeve Surgery in Teens
Gastric sleeve surgery, also called sleeve gastrectomy, is a method that involves the removal of a portion of the patient’s stomach (approximately 60% or more). What is left is a small sleeve-shaped pouch that allows the patient to feel full even after a light meal.
Gastric sleeve surgery and other bariatric procedures such as gastric banding and gastric bypass may be gaining popularity as possible treatment options for obese teens, concerned parents and intrigued spectators ask: isn’t it too early?
The FDA, although beginning to consider including adolescents aged 14-17 into the standards, stresses that weight loss surgery is currently approved for adults only. Performing the operation on adolescents is not illegal, but it is not performed regularly—and is greatly debated among the medical professionals.
In the past, most surgeons refused to perform bariatric procedures on adolescents. They feared that a teenager’s young body would be put to risk with surgery. “Bariatric surgery can deplete the body of key nutrients needed for healthy development,” said Dr. Lori Laffel, Chief of pediatric, adolescent and young adult section at a Diabetes Center, who is also the Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. “You don't want to compromise opportunities to attain maximum bone density and maximum bone mass,” she said.
Today, some doctors think that the child might not be cognitively ready for such a life-changing event. Syracuse family practitioner Dr. Wendy M. Scinta, who specializes in pediatric weight-loss, says, “I think it’s pretty extreme to change the anatomy of a child when you haven’t even tackled the other elements. Unlike with older patients there is not a huge rush to fix it or they will die.”
Problems with Bariatric Surgery in Teenagers
A major problem with bariatric surgery in teenagers, according to the WHO, is the lack of clinical studies on long-term effect of diverse weight loss measures.
“While bariatric treatment results in adults have been comparatively well documented, the sound effects of weight loss surgery in teens have not been studied systematically,” WHO says. “There is a pressing need to develop alternatives to weight loss surgery, such as lifestyle programs that are even modestly effective, until further long-term prospective studies are conducted.”
Light at the End of the Road
However, some recent studies have suggested that weight loss surgery is as safe and effective for youngsters as it is for grown-ups. In one study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, teens with gastric band lose over 10 times as much when compared to those in exercise and diet programs.
Experts who conducted the study say that having weight loss surgery is very helpful because aside from preventing medical issues brought about by morbid obesity, it also boosts the child’s confidence and allows for a more contented childhood.
Final Warning before Bariatric Surgery in Teens
It is emphasized, however, that not every child may be a candidate for weight loss surgery. The procedure is only recommended for teens whose BMI is 40 or above and who are showing obesity-related health problems.
Parents and their children must be reminded that weight-loss surgery is a life-changing procedure and there are preparations to be made, precautions to be considered, and risks to be made known, before they even think of letting their children go under the knife. The teen patient should be cognitively ready for the procedure and importantly, it should be done only after a proper recommendation by an expert.
[box]About the Author: Dr. Deepika Garg – Keenly involved in medical tourism and helping patients find affordable healthcare solutions in Mexico.[/box]