|Obese teens likelier to have unsafe sex
|by Dawn Brazell
There’s a new reason for parents and doctors to be concerned about
overweight teen girls other than just their physical health. A recent
study shows that obesity in teenage girls also can affect them sexually.
Lead author of the study, Margaret S. Villers, M.D., assistant
professor of obstetrics and gynecology at MUSC, said she's glad to see
the nationwide attention it is getting, which is generating discussion.
Findings in the paper “Sexual Behavior in Obese and Overweight
Adolescent Females” included that obese teens were almost three times
as likely as others to have had sex before age 13 and 30 percent more
likely to have had sex with more than three partners during their teen
also found that 6 percent of normal weight teens had sex before age 13,
as compared with 11 percent of overweight teens and 15 percent of obese
teens. And 39 percent of normal weight teens reported having sex with
more than three partners as compared with 45 percent of overweight
teens and 47 percent of obese teens.
Villers said what really surprised her was the increase in risky,
sexual behaviors. Obese and overweight girls also were less likely to
use condoms and other birth control. The study found that girls with
weight issues were almost 20 percent less likely to use condoms than
their thinner counterparts, and more than 30 percent less likely to use
other methods of contraception.
To her the findings are a call to action because she has seen
first-hand the impact of teen girls having intercourse under age 13.
“To us as gynecologists, that means something. Your risks of getting
human papillomavirus, which leads to cervical cancer, is much higher
the younger the age of intercourse. The risks of getting chylamdia,
which could lead to infertility, is associated with younger age of
intercourse. HIV is still relatively low in adolescence, but these are
all things we worry about whenever we see teens who are sexually
Villers said it’s important to understand the study in context. The
rate of teens having sex hasn’t changed much during the past few years,
“We need to teach
more about ‘hey, you’re a valuable person no matter who you are... It’s
important you protect who you are because you’re worth something.’”
“What we’re seeing among the ones who do chose to become sexually
active, is that the overweight teens seem to be doing more high-risk
behaviors compared to normal-weight teens who are choosing to have sex.
It’s not an issue that they’re more sexually promiscuous, because
they’re not. It’s just when they’re choosing to have sex they’re having
more sexual partners, they’re starting at a younger age, and they’re
less likely to use condoms. ”
Villers said the idea for the study came from brainstorming sessions
with resident Erin Swanson, M.D., who noticed that doctors were seeing
a larger number of overweight teenage girls and that many of them had
chlamydia. Curious as to whether this was a local trend or indicative
of something nationwide, they decided to take national data to look at
a sub-group that appeared to be at a greater risk than others.
Villers and her colleagues analyzed data from 21,773 teenage girls who
had taken part in the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and
Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey. The survey is given to
students at a broad range of middle and high schools across the nation
every other year.
Villers said they realized that though other issues such as smoking in
teens had been analyzed, no one had looked at body weight.
“We’re realizing that obesity is a big problem in our country. We’re
starting to realize that obesity has more than just an impact on your
physical health; it has an impact on your sexual health and so many
other aspects of your life.”
Villers said the study provides good information, but in some ways, it
raises more questions than it answers. She hopes researchers from other
specialities, such as sociology and psychology, will see it as a
springboard for more teen research. She particularly wants
pediatricians and gynecologists to rethink how they’re approaching
their teen patients.
“Do they ask about sex and do they ask about risk behaviors? Physicians
can have a significant influence on kids’ lives depending on what
approach they take,” she said. “We’ve known for years—you have multiple
sexual partners—we've got to talk to you about STDs [sexually
transmitted diseases]. The CDC is 100 percent clear about that. Screen
everybody under 25 years old for STDs. Do we truly do that and do we
appreciate who is at risk?”
The findings affect more than just physicians. Educators should take
note as well, she said. Giving the rise in STDs, sex education classes
need to take a different approach to educating teens about how risky
sexual behavior can have short-and-long term consequences, she said.
“We’re certainly not preventing teens from having sex because that
hasn’t changed over the years. But we’re definitely seeing a more
disturbing trend about STDs. Whatever message we’re teaching children
now, somehow it’s not getting through. Is there a question of
self-esteem? Is there a body-image issue?”
Villers said the bottom line for her is to figure out what she can do
to help teen patients lead healthy lives.
“We need to teach more about ‘hey, you’re a valuable person no matter
who you are. You are a beautiful person. It’s important you protect who
you are because you’re worth something.’”
Friday, June 18,