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Gastric bypass surgery used to be seen as a last resort for severely obese teenagers. Until now, it wasn't known if the surgery would have long-lasting effects. A new study in The New England Journal of Medicine shows it's not only safe, but it can't produce sustained weight loss and health benefits. NPR's Patti Neighmond reports it also can boost self-esteem.
PATTI NEIGHMOND, BYLINE: Health officials say the childhood obesity epidemic may be hitting a plateau. But pediatric surgeon Thomas Inge with the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center says that's certainly not the case when it comes to severe obesity. Inge headed the study that followed the progress of 242 severely obese boys and girls after they had surgery to reduce the size of their stomach.
THOMAS INGE: The starting point for these girls was over 300 pounds. In fact, the boys that were enrolled in the study, the starting point was more like 375 pounds. So on average, this group had a baseline weight, on average, of 325 pounds.
NEIGHMOND: The teenagers were between 13 and 19 years old. Inge says that's what makes the findings so remarkable. Not only did the teens lost nearly one-third of their original body weight and maintain it for three years, the development of obesity-related disease was stopped in its tracks.
INGE: The teenagers that had Type 2 diabetes that underwent surgery, 95 percent of them had no signs of diabetes at three years.
NEIGHMOND: No signs of diabetes at all. Teens also sawl dramatically lower blood pressure and less blood fat. Now, adults who have weight-loss surgery also see reductions in diabetes, blood pressure and blood fat, but it's not as dramatic, says Inge, who says that's probably because it's easier for a disease to disappear before it's had years to take hold. And equally important for teens, he says, there was a big jump in confidence and self-esteem.
INGE: I think that it's one thing to talk about, you know, what this does to their blood pressure and what it does to diabetes, but it's a whole other, when you're, you know, in the patients' shoes, to be able to talk about how they feel after the operation.
NEIGHMOND: And the answer was a resounding good - so good that some kids made some noticeable changes.
INGE: It's very much the routine to - you know, to see them expressing themselves and saying, here's me, you know, with green hair color or pink hair color. It's them telling the world, I think, that this is the new me, and I like it. And here we are.
NEIGHMOND: The surgery does alter how the body digests food, so most of the teens had to start taking vitamins and iron supplements. Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
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