Study Finds Weight Loss Surgery Reduces Premature Death in Obese People

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The benefits of gastric bypass surgery seem obvious any time you see a dramatic change in a friend who’s had the procedure or amazing before and after shots of bypass patients on television.  We see drastic weight loss, even hundreds of pounds, for patients who had little success losing weight through other means.  These dramatic results have led to a rapid increase in the number of weight loss surgeries performed.  More than 100,000 Americans had bariatric surgery in 2003.

Like any surgery, gastric bypass weight loss surgery has risks, and if you’ve ever considered the procedure, those risks might make you think twice.  But a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007 indicates that obese people who have bariatric surgery have a reduced risk of premature death.

The Swedish Long-Term Bariatric Surgery Study

The study, conducted in Sweden with over 4000 obese subjects, followed roughly half of the subjects who underwent one of three different weight loss surgeries, while the rest of the subjects did not undergo surgery but did receive conventional weight loss treatments.  Patients were followed for an average of 10 years to track their weight loss and their rate of death.

Surgery Patients Lost More Weight

Researchers found that all three of the weight loss surgeries resulted in weight loss that was significantly better than that achieved by those who did not have surgery.  On average, patients who had gastric bypass surgery had a weight change of 32%, patients who had vertical-banded gastroplasty had a 25% change in weight, and lap band patients had a 10% change.  The average change among the control group—those who had no surgery—stayed within only 2% of their original weight.

Surgery Patients Had a Lower Rate of Premature Death.

The rate of death in the group who had surgery was slightly lower than the rate among those who did not; in both groups the most common causes of death were heart attack and cancer.  There were some post-surgery deaths:  less than 1% of the patients in the surgery group (0.25%) died of causes related to post-operative complications.  But a similar number (0.10%) of patients who did not have weight loss surgery died from complications of surgeries that were not weight-loss-related.

The Swedish researchers have also tracked the relationship of weight loss surgery with other health concerns and have found that bariatric surgery is associated with positive effects on diabetes, various cardiovascular symptoms, joint pain, and health-related quality of life.

Although this study could not explain whether the positive effects on mortality were the result of the lost weight or other positive effects of weight loss surgery, the association is strongly positive:  obese patients who undergo weight loss surgery lose substantially more weight than those who do not; they experience other health benefits; and they are less likely to die prematurely.

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