Antipsychotic drugs used in kids can carry a steep health cost. Many children gain an unhealthy amount of weight after just a few months on the medicines.
Research just published in JAMA found the drugs led to weight gains ranging from about 10 to 19 pounds, depending on the medicine, in about 11 weeks. The analysis looked at popular brand-name drugs Abilify, Risperdal, Seroquel and Zyprexa.
The findings confirm what doctors pretty much already knew about the medicines. So why bother? For one, to tell doctors exactly what they can expect to see. Doctors have been prescribing these drugs more and more to kids — not just for schizophrenia and bipolar disease, but also for attention deficit disorder.
The second reason? With 272 youths aged 4 to 19 years old, the study is larger than previous studies. And third, the kids hadn't been treated before, so it's not like they were building on previous weight gain.
The findings are disturbing. Schizophrenia and bipolar disease are very difficult to treat, and they're both take a terrible toll on people's lives. Older antipsychotic drugs have their own problems, including irreversible nerve damage.
This study didn't look at whether the weight gain lasts if kids come off the drugs. "The issue of reversibility of weight and metabolic problems has not been studied in kids because either they need to stay on them, or they stop the meds and drop out of research too," says Christoph Correll, one of the paper's authors. Several psychiatrists we talked with said, in their experience, a good deal of the weight remains.
This study was funded by the government. Drug companies don't tend to want to run head-to-head tests with their products. What's needed next is a study comparing the effectiveness and side effects of the new and old drugs. That study, too, would have to be funded by the federal government. Some psychiatrists are already asking for it.