Weight-loss drugs soars among kids and young adults

Teen’s Remarkable Weight Loss Journey with Wegovy: A Look into the Rise of GLP-1 Drugs Among Young People

At 17, Israel McKenzie struggled so much with obesity that he stopped attending high school in person and felt embarrassed to interact with people at his restaurant job.

“I was in a really dark place,” says McKenzie, whose weight had reached 335 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame, despite numerous attempts to diet and exercise. “I had given up hope.”

But last year, the weight-loss drug Wegovy helped him shed 110 pounds in nine months, making the rural Tennessee teen part of a growing trend of adolescents and young adults using diabetes and obesity medications known as GLP-1 receptor agonists, according to new research.

Even as millions of older adults seek out drugs like Ozempic and Wegovy, monthly use of these medications has surged among people aged 12 to 25. This information comes from a new analysis of dispensing records from nearly 94% of U.S. retail pharmacies from 2020 to 2023.

New Insights from Research

The report, published in the journal JAMA, used the IQVIA prescription database to provide the first national look at the uptake of GLP-1 drugs among this age group. Nearly 31,000 children aged 12 to 17 and over 162,000 people aged 18 to 25 used these medications in 2023 alone, said Dr. Joyce Lee, a University of Michigan pediatrician and diabetes expert who led the research.

“What it’s suggesting is that it’s one of the tools in the toolbox and there are more providers prescribing this medication for the population,” she said.

The report indicates that the number of 12- to 25-year-olds using any GLP-1 drug — including older medications first approved for diabetes treatment in 2005 and for weight loss in 2014 — increased from about 8,700 a month in 2020 to over 60,000 a month in 2023, a nearly 600% increase. This rise occurred even as prescriptions of other drugs among these patients fell by about 3%.

Addressing the Obesity Epidemic

Those who received the drugs are just a fraction of young people struggling with obesity, Lee noted. About 20% of U.S. children and adolescents and approximately 42% of adults have the chronic disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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’s Transformation

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

“I started turning to food for all of my problems,” he said.

The extra weight worsened his asthma and put him at risk of developing diabetes, according to his doctor. Despite following medical advice to cut out sugary soda and snack foods and to exercise more, these efforts didn’t make a difference.

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

In early 2023, McKenzie connected with Dr. Joani Jack, a pediatric obesity specialist at Children’s Hospital at Erlanger in Chattanooga, Tennessee, who regularly prescribes GLP-1 drugs for kids.

“I told him I’ve seen 10 other people just like you today and we have lots of tools and treatment options,” Jack said. These typically include intensive behavioral and nutrition interventions combined with medication, if necessary.

In McKenzie’s case, Jack prescribed the weight-loss drug Wegovy, which in late 2022 was approved for use in U.S. children over age 12. More than 6,000 kids in that age group received Wegovy in 2023, according to new data. More than 7,600 received Ozempic, approved to treat diabetes in adults but used off-label in adolescents. Others received older GLP-1 drugs such as Saxenda and Trulicity.

Considerations and Challenges

McKenzie reported no notable side effects from the medication, but Dr. Lee noted that some young people experience nausea, vomiting, or constipation, including symptoms severe enough to stop the drugs.

Understanding the surging use of these medications in young people is crucial, Lee said. The drugs are intended for continued use, so “we really need to think about the long-term safety and effectiveness of these medications for this population,” she said.

Additionally, the drugs are expensive and often difficult to obtain due to supply issues or lack of insurance coverage.

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 those used by people aged 18 to 25, the research found. Commercial insurance covered nearly 44% of the younger kids and about two-thirds of those who were older.

A New Lease on Life

Today, McKenzie says his asthma has improved and he looks forward to interacting with co-workers and friends.

“I have a lot of self-confidence now, a lot more than I used to,” he said. “It has changed everything.”