Obesity surgery safer than traditional treatments, study suggests

  • Jason Lemon
  • Jason Lemon
1:05 p.m Monday, Jan. 22, 2018 Health

Having surgery to treat obesity may seem like a drastic option, but a new study suggests it may actually be a safer route than more traditional options.

Researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and the Clalit Research Institute in Israel, recently published their findings in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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The analyzed data, which traced patients history for 10 years, revealed that middle-aged men and women who had bariatric surgery have a death rate 50 percent lower than those who had traditional obesity treatments (such as dietary changes, behavioral adjustments and exercise).

"We showed that a long-term effect of bariatric surgery is a longer life for obese patients," study co-author Dr. Philip Greenland, professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University said in a news release. "They had half the death rate, which is significant."

Among individuals who did not have surgery, the rate of death was 2.3 percent as opposed to 1.3 percent in those who had surgery. Researchers analyzed the medical data of 8,385 people who had the surgery (65 percent women and 35 percent men), compared to 25,155 who chose non-invasive treatments.

After the data was adjusted to take into account factors such as sex, age and related diseases, the researchers noted that individuals who did not have a bariatric procedure were twice as likely to be dead within the ten year period of the study.

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Additionally, bariatric surgery patients showed a greater reduction in body mass index (BMI), improved blood pressure and lower rates of new diabetes diagnosis. A higher percentage of those who had diabetes, and chose surgery, went into remission as well.

"Surgery sounds like a radical approach to managing obesity, and a lot of people reject it because it seems like a risky thing to do, but it's actually less risky to have the surgery," Greenland told The Guardian.

At the same time, the studies authors have cautioned that surgery may not be right for everyone. The new study also has limitations, as it was an analysis of patient data and not randomized. It's possible that those who chose to forego surgery were already sicker than their counterparts.

The risks of obesity surgery and its potential complications have long been highlighted by physicians as well.

Ray Shidrawi, a leading doctor in the United Kingdom, warned against the procedure in an interview with The Independent in 2015. Citing serious complications, Shidrawi said the surgery can "ruin people's quality of life and can affect you for the rest of your life – or at least for months and years afterwards."

"I've got patients who've not eaten solid food for four years. They have to live on soup. They can't go to a restaurant in case they vomit up their food because it gets stuck in their throat," he explained.

But another smaller recently published study also appears to corroborate the potentially greater health benefits of bariatric surgery.

Looking at 113 patients, who had been treated for obesity through traditional methods and/or surgery, the research showed those who underwent a bariatric procedure lost more weight after one year. A higher percentage of those who underwent surgery had also achieved their goals for cholesterol, systolic blood pressure and a benchmark for glucose.

"Bariatric surgery is an increasingly frequent treatment for severe obesity," Dr. Laura Rasmussen-Torvik, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern, who was a co-author of the first-mentioned study, said, according to Jerusalem Post.

"It's highly effective in promoting weight loss but is also invasive and can lead to short and long-term complications. For patients and doctors to make the best-informed decisions about what weight-loss strategies to pursue, they need to understand the true costs and benefits of the procedures."

Although Greenland believes bariatric surgery may be a lifesaver for many, he also cautions of taking the new studies findings as the all-encompassing answer on obesity.

"We don't think this [new study] alone is sufficient to conclude that obese patients should push for bariatric surgery, but this additional information certainly seems to provide additional support," he said.