Gastric Bypass Surgery – Extreme Makeovers for Obese Teens

Friday, January 20th, 2012
This post was written by Cheryl Miller

It seems that gastric bypass surgery is way more popular than Justin Bieber.

At a time when most teens should be contemplating their friends’ latest Facebook post, there’s instead a large segment weighing the pros and cons of lap banding versus stomach stapling versus sleeve gastrectomy, the current crop of bariatric surgeries now targeted toward teenagers.

According to a recent New York Times article, 1 to 2 percent of all weight-loss or bariatric operations are on patients under 21, and studies are underway to gauge the outcomes of such surgery on children as young as 12. As stated in the Times:

Allergan®, the maker of the popular Lap-Band, a surgically inserted silicone band that constricts the stomach to make the patient feel full quickly, is seeking permission from the Food and Drug Administration to market it to patients as young as 14, four years younger than is now allowed. Hospitals across the country have opened bariatric centers for adolescents in recent years.

Along with the obesity epidemic in America is an explosion in weight-loss surgery, with about 220,000 operations a year — a sevenfold increase in a decade, costing more than $6 billion a year.

The article follows one obese but otherwise healthy teenager who has adjusted to her weight, but gets stomach banding surgery at her doctor’s advice to prevent future health problems like diabetes. The operation takes about 25 minutes, costs nearly $22,000, and is covered by a state insurance plan for low-income families.

Medicaid in almost every state and many private health plans now cover bariatric surgery, often more readily than diet or exercise plans. In fact, braces cost more than bariatric surgery. Federally funded bariatric surgery is a relatively new phenomenon; Medicare first endorsed paying for bariatric surgery in 2006. And Medicaid approved funding of it in 2004.

Gastric surgery is the latest surgical quick fix for teenagers who should be navigating the convoluted hallways of high school adolescence instead of surgery options. These surgeries constrict the stomach so that even eating a slice of pizza with friends, while not condoned in excess, could cause problems.

This, despite reports that show that U.S. obesity rates decreased last year from 26.6 percent in 2010 to 26.1 percent in 2011, according to a report based on the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index. Researchers said the decline was due in part to more Americans saying they were a normal weight in 2011.

This small decrease is significant, says Gallup researchers, because:

The cost of obesity is so high that even this small improvement has the potential to save the American economy a significant amount of money. A December 2010 analysis by the Society of Actuaries estimates that the total cost of obesity to the U.S. economy has climbed as high as $270 billion. Gallup’s own analysis finds that obesity and related chronic health issues cost businesses alone upward of $150 billion annually. But with more than one in four adults still obese, the nation has a long way to go to achieve lasting change.

We recently reported that CMS is now offering free preventive obesity counseling to seniors with a BMI greater than or equal to 30 kg/m2. As the Times reports, Allergan is targeting children at this threshold of obesity as candidates for the Lap-Band surgery.

And that’s a lot of children. According to a recent survey from the National Health and Nutrition Examination, nearly one-fifth of U.S. children and adolescents are obese.

It’s hard not to wonder when preventive education and old-fashioned dieting and exercise were replaced with surgical quick fixes like stomach stapling. Instead of paying for these surgeries, we need to finance education programs for the young so they don’t become one of the three American adults expected to have diabetes by the year 2030.

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