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Study Shows Death, Short-Term Complications Rare for Most Patients

July 29, 2009 -- Dying or having serious complications in the month after weight loss surgery is rare, a new study shows.

The study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, tracked 4,776 obese adults who had weight loss surgery at 10 U.S. centers from 2005 through 2007.

In the month after surgery, less than 1% of the patients died of any cause and about 4% had at least one serious complication (a life-threatening blood clot, the need for more procedures related to the weight loss surgery, or death).

"The overall risk of death and other adverse outcomes after bariatric surgery was low," write the researchers, who included David Flum, MD, MPH, FACS, of the Surgical Outcomes Research Center at the University of Washington.

The risks of complications were higher for extremely obese patients, patients with a history of deep vein thrombosis (clots in deep veins) or pulmonary embolisms (blood clots that travel to the lungs), patients who had obstructive sleep apnea (in which breathing stops briefly during sleep), and patients who weren't able to walk about 200 feet before surgery.

The surgeons who performed the operations were all highly skilled, and the centers where the operations were performed have a lot of experience with weight loss surgery, so the study's results "may represent a best-case scenario," states an editorial published with the study.

Ideally, obesity prevention would be more effective so people wouldn't need weight loss surgery, "but until we get to that point, the weight of the evidence indicates that bariatric surgery is safe, effective, and affordable," writes editorialist Malcom Robinson, MD, of the department of surgery at Harvard Medical School.

In the journal, Robinson and several of the researchers disclose ties to various medical device companies and having served as expert witnesses in legal cases involving weight loss surgery.

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