And she warned: “Hypertension [high blood pressure] is not just something that causes problems in the future; we are seeing children with hypertension who already have organ damage - such as heart conditions usually seen in 40-year-olds.”
George Longstreth, senior study author, from Kaiser Permanente’s San Diego Medical Centre, added: “The high rate of gallstones in obese children and adolescents may surprise paediatricians because gallstone disease is generally regarded as an adult disorder.
“Since obesity is so common, paediatricians must learn to recognize the characteristic symptoms of gallstones.
“With childhood obesity on the rise, pediatricians can expect to diagnose and treat an increasing number of children affected by gallstone disease. It is important to identify other factors that increase risk as well.”
They found being on the contraceptive pill, known to be a risk factor for gallstones, doubled the chance of developing them, irrespective of weight.
Nick Markham, a consultant surgeon at North Devon and District Hospital, who has a specialist interest in gallstones, said: “From my own point of view and from talking to colleagues I would say that there are now more youngsters presenting with gallstones in Britain, and my gut feeling is that it’s due to an increase in childhood obesity.
Gallbladder disease and obesity
Gallbladder disease is a very common diagnosis and implies great economic cost. Gallbladder disease is a multifactorial process involved with host and environmental factors. Obesity is considered one of the most important risk factor associated with gallstone disease and is very important mainly due its increased prevalence worldwide. Several changes in cholesterol metabolism tend to increase gallbladder cholesterol secretion in conjunction with motility disturbances, which aids in gallstone growth. In this work, epidemiologic and pathophysiologic factors related with obesity and gallstone disease are discussed.
Gallstones may cause symptoms such as recurrent abdominal pain and nausea, although many people with gallstones have no symptoms.
Gallstones can block the passage of bile into the intestine, which in turn can cause severe damage or infection in the gallbladder, liver, or pancreas and, if left untreated, the condition can be fatal.
Obesity is a major risk factor for gallstones in adults.
Dr Koebnick said the study identified 766 children who had gallstones because they were treated, probably with surgery to remove the gallbladder.
She said there had been reports of clinics in the US performing more gallbladder surgery on children, with operations at one clinic in Texas going up from two to 100 a year over 40 years.
“However, I don’t have any hard evidence to back that up.”
Fatter people probably got gallstones more because they had a greater intake of cholesterol, he said, although he noted thin people got them too.
“While we know a lot about the things that predispose people to greater incidence of gallstones, we don’t really know why they develop in one individual and not another,” he said.
By Stephen Adams, Medical Correspondent