From Severe Obesity to Liver Disease, American Kids Are Getting Sicker

Despite the rapid pace of medical advances, it seems like American students are as unhealthy as they have ever been. This week, JoNel Aleccia of NBC News reports that even as overall obesity rates among school-aged kids are leveling off, this trend hasn’t made it to the extreme ends of the scale. On the contrary, more children than ever now fall into the top 5% “severely obese” category, in part because the body mass index scale was adjusted downwards to include kids with BMIs 35 and above.

The numbers come courtesy of the American Heart Association, which, in a statement published this week, lamented that severe obesity is the fastest growing category among overweight youngsters. The finding is troubling not only for what it means for the health of American children today, but what it could mean down the road. After all, this much excess weight is incredibly difficult to lose using the only reliable non-surgical means like diet and exercise.

“Once this problem gets so severe, there’s no turning back, or there’s no turning back easily,” said Dr. Thomas Inge, a co-author of the paper and director of the Center for Bariatric Research and Innovation at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “People don’t like to hear that and they don’t like to know that.”

Severely obese kids have higher rates of weight-related disease, including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, with complications such as high blood pressure and hardening of the arteries. Previous research has shown that obese kids as young as age 10 can have the arteries of middle-aged adults.

Obesity isn’t the only medical issue plaguing young people. Newser’s Rob Quinn reports that as many as 10% of children are being diagnosed with liver disease, an illness more commonly found among alcoholics. In addition, since the disease has no obvious symptoms, many of those afflicted won’t know they have it until it is too late to avoid long-term medical consequences like cirrhosis and liver failure.

Around 10% of children are now believed to have fatty liver disease, which can lead to cirrhosis and liver failure in some cases, the Wall Street Journalreports. Around 40% of obese children have the condition, but its prevalence is rising even as obesity rates level off; the number of normal-weight children with fatty livers has also surged over the last 20 years, studies show.

“This is just really worrisome to have this number of children who have a disease this severe,” says a pediatrics professor whose research has found that the prevalence of fructose in Western diets could be partly to blame.