Gallstones in children linked with obesity

By Shayna Brouker • Published: November 12th, 2012
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Gallstones normally are an ailment of the elderly, but new research is showing the painful health problem is now affecting more children than ever. Other conditions typically linked to older age are popping up in children, too, such as high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes. The childhood obesity epidemic may be to blame.

Nearly 20 million adults in the U.S. suffer from gallstones, and until recently it was unheard of for kids to get them. But a sharp increase in the number of obese children undergoing gallbladder removal surgery led pediatricians to believe obesity could be the culprit. So scientists from the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Department of Research and Evaluation set out to test the idea.

Indeed, they found that obese children and teens were at least twice as likely to have gallstones as those who were normal weight or underweight. What’s more, the risk was nearly three to eight times higher for the heftiest boys and girls.

Published in the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology & Nutrition, the study also found that the link was stronger for girls than boys, and that Hispanic girls were at a higher risk than other races. Using oral contraceptives upped the risk, too.

So what are gallstones, anyway, and how can you avoid them? They’re deposits in the gallbladder, usually made of hardened cholesterol. They can be large or small and may cause no symptoms, but in the worst cases they block bile and cause inflammation, infection or serious organ damage. Symptoms include bouts of pain that can last 15 minutes to up to six hours.

Exercising, eating regular meals and regulating your hormone levels if you are female can lower your risk of getting a gallstone. Eat lots of whole grains, fiber and calcium, and limit high-fat foods and cholesterol. If the research is right, maintaining a healthy body weight can keep gallstones at bay.