Are Obese Teens Destined for Heart Attacks?

Amanda Jonnet weighs nearly 300 pounds and has struggled with her weight for a good portion of her 16 years.

"Doctors always told me, 'You've got to lose weight,' " said the teen, who lives in a suburb of Pittsburgh. "There was a time I gained 20 pounds in one month, and I was 10 years old, and my doctor was like, 'Amanda, you can't do this.' "

Steven Jonnet, her father, said he tried everything to help his daughter, to no avail.

"It was constantly trying to have her lose the weight on diets, even ordered programs over the TV," he said. "Nothing would work, and I didn't know how to help her."

His daughter said that she simply couldn't limit her eating.

"I was always hungry," Amanda said. "They'd say, 'Eat a cup of rice.' I'd look at this cup of rice — I'd even put it on a smaller plate so I felt like I was eating more, and I'd sit there after dinner and I'd be like, 'I'm so hungry.' "

By age 12, Amanda had already tried diet pills and was attending Weight Watchers. She is far from alone, but doctors say extra pounds are dangerous, even for children, who are more likely to suffer further potentially fatal health problems at a younger age.

"The bigger they are, the higher the early death rate, and it's usually a cardiovascular-related death, heart attack or stroke," said Dr. Philip Schauer, an obesity specialist at Magee Women's Hospital in Pittsburgh. "Teenagers who have this problem now — that continue to increase or stay the same in terms of their weight — will likely have a much higher risk of premature death."

Larger, Flabbier Hearts

As children gain weight, changes happen in their bodies. The heart may get larger and flabbier, making it harder for it to pump blood. The pancreas releases more insulin, and blood pressure skyrockets, which causes arteries to get thicker and stiffer. Just as occurs in adults, the arteries clog with deadly fat, all of which makes kids vulnerable to early heart attack and stroke. Amanda Jonnet's health has already begun to suffer. She is fighting liver disease along with diabetes. A family history of high cholesterol and high blood pressure put her at high risk for debilitating side effects.

Only recently have doctors begun to see the long-term consequences of obesity firsthand, as young, overweight Americans begin suffering earlier and earlier.

"We're going to have a lot of 20- and 30-year-olds who are having significant medical problems," said Dr. Ron Williams, who runs the pediatric obesity clinic at Penn State Children's Hospital in Hershey, Pa. "They're going to have high blood pressure, they're going to have earlier heart attacks, earlier strokes, more arthritis in their knees — they'll be unhappy."

For Amanda, that unhappiness has already set in.

"These doctors are listing more and more problems, and it's like well, I don't want to die from fatty liver, problems associated with that," she said. "I don't want to have to put insulin in my body every day. My life is like a time bomb right now."

The 16-year-old is headed for more health problems down the road, Schauer said.

"She's already on medication for diabetes," he said. "That will progress and today even with the best medical treatment for diabetes, it's still a progressive disease, and over time — five, 10, 15, 20 years of uncontrolled diabetes — complications tend to develop."

Heart Attack at 34

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