A new US study has projected that overweight adoloscents face alarming increases in the risk of heart disease and premature death as young adults.

The study is published today, 6th December, in the New England Journal of Medicine and is the work of researchers based at the University of California, San Francisco (USCF) and Columbia University Medical Center.

The researchers processed figures on overweight teenagers in the year 2000 through the Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) Policy Model, a computer based statistical package, to estimate the impact that a increasingly overweight American teenage population might have on adult health throughout the country.

Dr Lee Goldman, the senior author of the study, and executive vice president for health and biomedical sciences at Columbia University Medical Center and dean of the University’s medical school, was one of the original developers of the CHD Policy Model.

The figures the researchers used came from an analysis of data from the US Census Bureau, the Medicare program, National Hospital Discharge Survey, NCHS National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, and other major studies of heart disease risk.

The results showed that:

  • Up to 37 per cent of males will be obese in 2020, when teenagers from the year 2000 are 35 years old.
  • For females the figure will be even higher at 44 per cent.
  • Because of this projected rate of obesity, those young adults are likely to have more heart attacks, more chronic chest pain, and to die before they are 50.
  • The US is likely to see more than 100,000 extra cases of heart disease by the year 2035.
  • This is an increase of 16 per cent on today’s figures; and an increase of 19 per cent in deaths due to coronary heart disease.

The study concludes:

“Although projections 25 or more years into the future are subject to innumerable uncertainties, extrapolation from current data suggests that adolescent overweight will increase rates of CHD among future young and middle-aged adults, resulting in substantial morbidity and mortality.”

Lead author of the study and assistant professor in medicine, epidemiology and biostatistics at UCSF, Dr Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, said in a prepared statement that:

“Today’s adolescents are the young adults of tomorrow; young adults who would ordinarily be working, raising their families, and not worried about heart disease until they are much older.”

“Our study suggests that more of these young adults will have heart disease when they are 35-50 years old, resulting in more hospitalizations, medical procedures, need for chronic medications, missed work days and shortened life expectancy,” she added.

Bibbins-Domingo also said that the study showed how important it was to prevent childhood obesity: “the current high rate of overweight is not just a problem for adolescents and their parents, it’s something that will affect all of us well into the future”.

According to the the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 9 million of America’s teenagers are overweight, and childhood obesity has tripled since 1970. And other studies have estimated that 80 per cent of adolescents who are overweight today are likely to be obese as young adults.

Goldman said:

“We must recall that we all tend to gain weight as we age, so overweight in adolescents means even higher weights later on.”

“Although the general findings of our analysis are not surprising, we were struck by the sheer magnitude of the impact of adolescent obesity and, as a result, how important it is as a public health priority,” he added.

The researchers also investigated whether treating obesity-related illnesses like high blood pressure and cholesterol would lessen the health impact of obesity, but the results showed that while dealing with these complications at a young age could help, it would not lessen the risk of obesity-linked diabetes, which raises heart disease rates.

As Bibbins-Domingo put it:

“One of the major health risks for an obese person is becoming diabetic because diabetes increases the risk of heart disease and many other health complications.”

“Unfortunately, it is currently very difficult to lower the likelihood of getting diabetes once a person is obese,” she added.

“Adolescent Overweight and Future Adult Coronary Heart Disease.”
Bibbins-Domingo, Kirsten, Coxson, Pamela, Pletcher, Mark J., Lightwood, James, Goldman, Lee.
N Engl J Med 2007 357: 2371-2379.
Volume 357:2371-2379, December 6, 2007, Number 23.

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Written by: Catharine Paddock