In the study, about half the children suffered from high blood pressure, and almost 15 percent were diabetic. Seventy-five percent had high levels of a protein that’s linked to heart disease.
“Severe obesity in the adolescent age group is associated with numerous cardiovascular risk factors that were previously thought to only affect adults,” said study author Dr. Marc Michalsky, an associate professor of clinical surgery and pediatrics at Ohio State University College of Medicine, in Columbus.
The study didn’t examine whether the children–with an average age of 17–faced a higher risk of premature death. But it did show that the risk factors for heart disease are more severe in heavier kids.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of children aged 6 to 11 who are obese–a step up from overweight–jumped from 7 percent in 1980 to more than 17 percent in 2012. The percentage of obese kids aged 12 to 19 grew from 5 percent to more than 20 percent.
Research has suggested that obese kids suffer from diabetes, high cholesterol and skeletal problems, Michalsky said, but there hasn’t been much analysis of the problems facing extremely obese kids. That’s where the new study comes in.
The researchers looked at 242 children under the age of 19 who were waiting for weight-loss surgery between 2007 and 2011. The typical child had a body-mass index of 50, which translates to 340 pounds for a person who’s 5-foot-9.
About half of the study participants had high cholesterol, and 95 percent had at least one risk factor for heart disease. Five percent had four risk factors.
Boys–who made up about a quarter of the study participants–were more likely to suffer from high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
The findings suggest that early diagnosis and treatment of risk factors could make a difference in stopping diseases from getting worse, Michalsky said.
Aaron Kelly, an associate professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School, endorsed the study and said it shows that there isn’t a “ceiling effect.” Health risks grow along with excess weight, he said.
Kelly added that the study “drives home the fact that some teens with severe obesity need intensive treatments like weight-loss surgery to reduce their chances of developing early heart disease, diabetes or both.”
The study appears in the March 2 issue of JAMA Pediatrics.