The use of Wegovy and other weight loss medications is increasing among children and young adults

At age 17, Israel McKenzie was so burdened by obesity that he stopped attending high school in person and was ashamed to talk to people at his restaurant job.

“I was in a very dark place,” says McKenzie, whose weight had ballooned to 335 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame despite repeated attempts to diet and exercise. “I had given up hope.”

But last year, the weight-loss drug Wegovy helped him lose more than 110 pounds in nine months, making the rural Tennessee teen part of a wave of adolescents and young adults taking diabetes and obesity drugs known as GLP-1 receptor agonists , according to new research.

Even as millions of older adults clamor for drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy, monthly use of these drugs increased among people ages 12 to 25. This is evident from the new analysis of the dispensing data of almost 94% of American pharmacies between 2020 and 2023.

The report, published Wednesday in the journal JAMA, used IQVIA's prescription database to take a first look at national uptake of GLP-1 drugs among that age group. In 2023 alone, nearly 31,000 children ages 12 to 17 and more than 162,000 people ages 18 to 25 used the drugs, said Dr. Joyce Lee, a pediatrician and diabetes expert at the University of Michigan who led the study.

“What it suggests is that it is one of the tools in the toolbox and there are more providers prescribing this drug to the population,” she said.

The report shows that the number of 12- to 25-year-olds taking a GLP-1 drug — including older drugs first approved in 2005 for the treatment of diabetes and in 2014 for weight loss — has risen from about 8,700 per month in 2020 to more than 60,000 per month in 2023, an increase of almost 600%. The increase occurred even as prescriptions for other drugs among these patients fell by about 3%.

Those who received the drugs made up only a fraction of the young people struggling with obesity, Lee noted. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 20% of American children and adolescents and about 42% of adults have the chronic disease.

In early 2023, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that children and teens with obesity be evaluated early and treated aggressively, including with surgery and medication if warranted.

McKenzie, the Tennessee teen, said he started gaining weight five years ago, during puberty.

“I started looking for food for all my problems,” he said.

The extra weight worsened his asthma and put him at risk of developing diabetes, his doctor said. He tried following medical advice by cutting out sugary soft drinks and snacks and exercising more, but the efforts made no difference.

“My old doctor told me there was nothing he could do,” he said. “He told me it was my fault.”

In early 2023, McKenzie came into contact with Dr. Joani Jack, a pediatric obesity specialist at Erlanger Children's Hospital in Chattanooga, Tennessee, who regularly prescribes GLP-1 medications for children.

“I told him I saw ten other people like you today and that we have a lot of resources and treatment options,” Jack said. These usually include intensive behavioral and nutritional interventions, combined with medication if necessary.

In McKenzie's case, Jack prescribed the weight-loss drug Wegovy, which was approved for use in US children over 12 in late 2022. More than 6,000 children in that age group would receive Wegovy in 2023, the new data shows. More than 7,600 patients received Ozempic, which is approved for the treatment of diabetes in adults but can be used off-label in adolescents. Others were given older GLP-1 drugs such as Saxenda and Trulicity.

McKenzie said he had no significant side effects from the medication, but Lee noted that some young people report nausea, vomiting or constipation, including symptoms so severe that they stop taking the medications.

It's important to understand the rising use of these drugs in young people, Lee said. The drugs are intended for ongoing use, so “we really need to think about the long-term safety and effectiveness of these medications for this population,” she said.

In addition, the drugs are expensive and often difficult to obtain, either because of supply problems or because they are not covered by insurance.

Notably, government-run Medicaid plans paid for nearly half of the GLP-1 drugs prescribed to 12- to 17-year-olds and about a quarter of the drugs used by people aged 18 to 25, according to the report. the research showed. Commercial insurance covered care for nearly 44% of younger children and about two-thirds of older children.

Today, McKenzie says his asthma is better and he looks forward to interacting with colleagues and friends.

“I have a lot of confidence now, much more than before,” he said. “It changed everything.”

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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