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WEDNESDAY, Oct. 26, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Weight-loss surgeries can help severely obese teens shed pounds. And now a study finds these procedures can also pay for themselves in health care savings over time.
"Our analysis indicates that it can also be cost-effective when assessed over a relatively short time horizon," wrote a team led by Dr. Chin Hur of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
According to background information in the study, up to 6 percent of American youths are severely obese, and that rate is expected to rise.
Lifestyle changes -- diet and exercise -- are the first-line treatment for these teens, but this approach rarely leads to significant lasting weight loss, the researchers said. So, weight-loss (bariatric) surgery is increasingly being viewed as an option for these teens.
But the surgeries can be expensive, and there's little data on whether those expenses outpace cost savings down the line.
That led the authors of this study to compare health care costs for 228 severely obese teens, average age 17, who did or did not have weight-loss surgery.
The researchers calculated that while weight-loss surgery was not cost-effective over three years following the procedure, it could become cost-effective over five years.
"Longer-term studies that track quality of life, weight loss, comorbidity [illness] resolution, and health care costs are needed to confirm our findings," the researchers added.
Of course, there are other benefits to young people as well, the researchers said.
"At present, bariatric surgery is performed in approximately 1,000 adolescents per year," Hur's team said. "Bariatric surgery can result in life-altering weight loss, which not only leads to the resolution and prevention of disease but also allows patients to avoid the stigma, bullying and isolation that often accompany severe obesity."
Two weight-loss surgeons agreed.
"With an active teenage program, I not only agree with these findings but go further," said Dr. Mitchell Roslin, chief of obesity surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "Bariatric surgery, done in properly selected teenagers with functioning homes, can change their entire life. We have had kids ostracized from school become varsity athletes."
He added that "in our program we prefer to treat earlier, around 15 or 16, so an adjustment can be made before going to college and living independently."
Dr. Alexander Barkan is a bariatric surgeon at Winthrop-University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y. He agreed with the study authors that lifestyle change, typically, isn't enough to help very obese teenagers lose weight on a sustained basis.
"Teenagers who are suffering with weight can be forever damaged in social settings and psychologically," Barkan said. "Weight loss provides them with confidence and a healthier sense of self."
The study was published online Oct. 26 in the journal JAMA Surgery.
-- Robert Preidt
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