Nearly 40 percent of obese teenagers are bound to become severely obese young adults, researchers at the UNC-Chapel Hill confirmed for the first time, and many gain a startling amount of weight.
Some packed on 80 pounds or more over the 13 years covered in the study.
"That's a lot of weight," said Penny Gordon-Larsen, associate professor of nutrition at UNC's Gillings School of Global Public Health and senior author of the study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Researchers will now explore why this is happening, but the message is clear: Early excessive weight becomes an almost insurmountable burden with troubling consequences.
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"This study represents the first data that proves obesity gets worse from teen to adulthood. We knew that intuitively, but it's the first to show how severe it can be," said Dr. Sarah Armstrong, a pediatrician at Duke University who treats youngsters with weight problems at Duke's Healthy Lifestyles Program.
The UNC-CH researchers studied nearly 9,000 teenagers starting in 1996 as they became young adults. Gordon-Larsen said teens who began the study obese were 16 times more likely than their peers to become severely obese by age 30, meaning they weighed at least 100 pounds more than they should.
Other studies have shown that obese teens tend to stay obese into adulthood, but the UNC-CH research shows a dangerous progression of weight gain, potentially adding 1 million young people to the ranks of morbidly obese.
Likely results include more and earlier cases of diabetes, heart problems, asthma, kidney and liver diseases, cancer, arthritis and other ailments directly linked to excessive weight.
The complications of obesity cost $147 billion a year in the United States, researchers at RTI International have found, and will likely rise as the epidemic worsens.
Health problems are already appearing in doctors' offices and hospitals across North Carolina, where obesity rates for both children and adults are higher than the national average, said Dr. David Collier, a pediatrician and director of the Pediatric Healthy Weight Research and Treatment Center at East Carolina University's Brody School of Medicine.
"There's more and more type 2 diabetes, and younger and younger kids," Collier said, adding that the early weight gain can often be harder to lose, as bad eating habits and a sedentary lifestyle become ingrained.
Young people may also not understand the health consequences of carrying excess weight. While vanity may be their primary concern, the health complications of being overweight are serious and can be debilitating.
'The price you pay'
Kathleen Dickson, 48, of Fuquay-Varina, said she has battled weight for most of her life and gained significantly in high school and beyond. Now, she said, she has health problems she never dreamed she'd suffer at her age.
Carrying more than 300 pounds, Dickson said her knees are a constant ache. But she's not eligible for knee replacement surgery because she's too heavy - and too young. The artificial knees wear out, so doctors won't implant them in younger people who are likely to require another new joint as they age.
"I never imagined when I was in my 20s and 30s that I would pay for it so much, so soon," Dickson said. "I think that's been the hardest thing."
Dickson said she has been on a weight-loss regimen for four months, and has dropped 40 pounds, but fights for every success.
"Kids don't realize the price you pay," she said. "It's really painful."
Effect on policy
Collier said the findings of the study should be a call to action for local, state and national leaders to redouble their efforts tackling the problem. He said that includes political decisions that affect what foods are sold cheaply, and community efforts to build parks and bike paths so people can be more active.
"The policies that promote a healthful environment are needed everywhere, whether preventing obesity or treating obesity," Collier said. "It's a very complex issue ... and it needs societal and political will."