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As Wellspring begins welcoming hundreds of young people to our 11 life-changing summer camps, in some of the most beautiful locations you could ever hope to spend a summer, we are reminded of some important facts.

The majority of Wellspring campers have been dealing to a greater or lesser extent with issues such as low self-esteem, lack of future or goal-orientation, negative attitude, and many have been diagnosed with depression (and a sizable number have been prescribed anti-depressant medication). But only a small percentage of campers report medical issues resulting from (or corresponding with) their weight on their camp medical forms. However, as some recent research points out, this doesn’t mean that all is well from a medical standpoint.

In a recent study out of the Medical College of Georgia, researchers examined 126 male adolescents and found the hormone aldosterone highest among the subjects who were overweight. Aldosterone is a hormone known to increase blood pressure, and is an early sign of heart damage.

In another study reported in Cardiology Today, obese youth ages 10-24 had a higher level of artery thickness and stiffness. Subjects were evaluated with cardiac ultrasonography, during which carotid intima-media thickness was measured. The researchers concluded that “these findings are particularly disturbing because the prevalence of obesity… in youth is increasing across the globe and may lead to a parallel increase in adverse cardiovascular outcomes. Therefore, pediatric health care practitioners should continue to screen for abnormalities in cardiovascular risk factors, especially in children with elevated BMI. Comprehensive lifestyle interventions to reduce obesity must be applied now if we are to prevent a projected decline in life expectancy for our youth.”

Obesity also negatively impacts other bodily systems in overweight teens. An article last month in the Los Angeles Times reported that pediatric urologists were seeing a rapid increase in the number of children with kidney stones. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles has now established a pediatric kidney stone center. Most urologists believe that poor diets and obesity have caused at least some of the increase in kidney stones in children.

Obesity may even increase the risks associated with the flu, a fact in the news lately due to the scare about swine flu. According to the Centers for Disease Control, obesity is as much of a risk factor for serious complications from swine flu as diabetes, heart disease and pregnancy. “We were surprised by the frequency of obesity among the severe cases that we’ve been tracking,” said Anne Schuchat, one of the CDC epidemiologists managing the outbreak. She said scientists are “looking into” the possibility that obese people should be at the head of the line along with other high-risk groups if a swine flu vaccine becomes available.”

Of course, the health risks of obesity later in life are well established. Some recent reports provide some new numbers that help frame the scope of the issue. A new study from a healthcare consulting firm called Advanced Plan for Health shows that employers pay more than 2x for healthcare for obese employees than for employees at a healthy weight. The study looked at a population of 128,000 employees. Per-member-per-month spending for a non-obese employee ranged from $176.71 to $226.92, while the same range for the obese group was $414.86 to $536.53 – 135% more. In addition, obese employees were 25 percent more likely to have more than 15 different providers in the span of 12 months, meaning much more frequent medical visits.

Another study released last month by Emory University researchers revealed:

  • The prevalence of 11 chronic conditions associated with overweight and obesity grew 180 percent from 1997 to 2005;
  • Average per capita health spending increased by 40 percent from 1997 to 2005, but the average for the 15 costliest conditions – all associated in some way with obesity – jumped 55 percent;
  • Overall, obesity accounts for 27 percent of the increase in inflation-adjusted health expenditures among working-age adults; and
  • If the prevalence of obesity were the same today as in 1987, health care spending in the United States would be about $200 billion less each year.

You can bet that you will hear many more statistics like this as the health care reform debate heats up over the summer.