In a new study, obese children and teens were at least twice as likely to have gallstones as those whose weight was normal or underweight -- and the risk was nearly three to eight times higher for the heaviest boys and girls.
Gallstones in Kids Linked to Obesity
Childhood obesity has more than tripled in the United States over the last three decades, according to the CDC.
The rise has been accompanied by an increase in obesity-related health problems, such as type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol, that were once largely confined to adults; this study confirms that gallbladder disease is among them.
Researcher Corinna Koebnick, PhD, says even though gallstones are still relatively rare among children and teens, this may not be the case among kids who are extremely overweight.
Koebnick is a research scientist with the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Department of Research and Evaluation.
“With childhood obesity on the rise, pediatricians can expect to diagnose and treat an increasing number of children affected by gallstone disease,” she says.
Gallbladder Surgeries More Common
An estimated 20 million adults in the U.S. have gallstones. Women are more likely to have them than men.
Gallstones are deposits formed inside the gallbladder. Most gallstones are stones that contain hardened cholesterol. Gallstones vary in size and may cause no symptoms. In other cases, they can block the passage of bile and cause inflammation, infection, or organ damage that can be serious.
Among children, gallstones have been closely linked to blood diseases such as sickle cell anemia.
But reports of a sharp increase in gallbladder removal surgeries in children led to the speculation that obesity may play a role.
To test the theory, the Kaiser Permanente researchers examined the electronic health records of more than half a million 10- to 19-year-olds enrolled in the health plan. They found 766 patients with gallstones.
They found that the association between obesity and gallstones was stronger for girls than boys.
Extremely obese girls were nearly eight times more likely to be treated for gallbladder disease than girls who were normal weight or underweight.
Among the other findings:
- The heaviest boys were three times as likely to have gallstones as normal-weight or underweight boys.
- Hispanic children and teens had a higher gallstone risk than those of other races.
- In teen girls, use of oral contraceptives was also linked to a higher gallstone risk, which is also the case with adult women.
Gallbladder Disease in Kids Was Once 'Unheard Of'
Nutritionist Nancy Copperman, RD, works with overweight and obese young people, and trains others to do the same, as director of public health initiatives at the North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, N.Y.
She says the new study and studies like it are important because they document the rise in obesity-related disease in young people.
“Gallbladder disease was virtually unheard of in children until a few years ago, with the exception of those related to blood disorders,” she tells WebMD.
She adds that the fact that this is no longer the case highlights the importance of addressing the childhood obesity epidemic.
“This is not a cosmetic issue,” she says. “Obesity carries health risks for children as well as adults, and the best treatment is prevention.”
The study is published in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology & Nutrition.