Ozempic in Teens Is a Confusing Mess
Somehow, America’s desire for Ozempic is only growing. The drug’s active ingredient, semaglutide, is sold as an obesity medication under the brand name Wegovy—and it has become so popular that its manufacturer, Novo Nordisk, recently limited shipments to the U.S. and paused advertising to prevent shortages. Its promise has enticed would-be patients and set off a pharmaceutical arms race to create more potent drugs.
Part of the interest stems from Ozempic’s potential in teens: In December, the FDA approved Wegovy as a treatment for teenagers with obesity, which affects 22 percent of 12-to-19-year-olds in the United States. The drug’s ability to spur weight loss in adolescents has been described as “mind-blowing.” In January, in its new childhood-obesity-treatment guidelines, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended that doctors consider adding weight-loss drugs such as semaglutide as a treatment for some patients.
But although many doctors and obesity experts have embraced semaglutide as a treatment for adults, some are concerned that taking it at such a young age—and at such a precarious stage of life—could pose serious risks, especially because the long-term physical and mental-health effects of the medication are still unknown. Others, however, believe that not using this medication in adolescents is riskier, because obesity makes teens vulnerable to serious health conditions and premature death. In part because of the apprehension among doctors, prescriptions for semaglutide in teens are not taking off like they are for adults. At this point, whether these drugs will ever catch on as a treatment for teens remains deeply uncertain.
Semaglutide isn’t just effective for teens; it may be even more effective than it is in adults. In a large Novo Nordisk–funded study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, “the degree of weight reduction in adolescents was better than what was observed in the adult trials,” Aaron S. Kelly, a co-director of the Center for Pediatric Obesity Medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School, told me. In another Novo Nordisk–funded study published last week, a team led by Kelly showed that the drug, combined with counseling and exercise, nearly halved the number of teens with obesity after they received 68 weeks of treatment. Both for adolescents and adults, the weekly injection doesn’t “magically melt away body fat,” Kelly said; instead, it works by triggering a sense of fullness and quieting hunger pangs.
Teenagers’ experience with obesity is different—in some ways more intense—than that of older people. Puberty is a time of lots of growth and development, so the body fights off attempts at weight loss “with every mechanism that it has,” Tamara Hannon, a pediatric endocrinologist at the Indiana University School of Medicine, told me. Teenagers may also have less control than adults over what they eat or how much activity they get, because these are largely circumscribed by their family and school, as well as by social pressure to conform to how their peers eat. “Making good choices means doing something different than the majority of the other kids,” Hannon said. “At every corner, there’s something that is in direct opposition to losing weight.”
Because obesity is a chronic disease, developing it early can be devastating. In many cases, it can result in illnesses such as type 2 diabetes and fatty liver at a young age. Children with obesity are five times more likely than their peers to have it in adulthood; as teens with obesity become adults with obesity, they can “develop very, very aggressive disease,” Fatima Stanford, an obesity-medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, told me. Weight-loss drugs give doctors the ability to intervene before the effects of obesity snowball, she said, which is why AAP’s new childhood-obesity guidelines advocate for using them as part of early, aggressive treatment—along with many hours of in-person health and lifestyle therapy. Used early enough, semaglutide or other medications could possibly reroute the trajectory of a teenager’s entire life.
But semaglutide could also possibly throw a teen’s trajectory off course. Because treatment is considered a lifelong endeavor—stopping usually leads to rapid weight regain—adolescents who start the medication will be taking it for many decades. “We have no way of knowing whether these drugs, used so early in life for so long, could have unanticipated adverse effects,” David Ludwig, an endocrinologist at Boston Children’s Hospital, told me. Although adults face many of the same unknowns, the risks for teens could be more severe, because their body and brain are in constant flux. Of particular concern are the drug’s potential impacts on physiological changes specific to adolescence. “We need to keep an eye on pubertal development and menstrual history for girls,” Hannon said. In addition, the drugs can lead to unsavory side effects such as gastrointestinal issues and may have other impacts, including significant muscle loss and rewiring of the brain’s reward circuitry. Scientists are just beginning to understand these effects; at this point, only two major studies have been conducted on semaglutide in teens, and neither has involved a long follow-up period.
The repercussions of semaglutide treatment on mental health, an important aspect of obesity care, are even less understood. Teens are “more likely than an adult to have intermittent access to medication,” Kathleen Miller, an adolescent-medicine specialist at Children’s Minnesota hospital, told me—and skipping several doses in a row could pose physical and well as psychological risks. Another concern is that the overall effect of taking semaglutide—a decreased appetite, which leads to eating less—is essentially the same as that of dieting. When teens go on very restrictive diets, whether or not they involve weight-loss medications, “we know that may be harmful to their mental health and promote disordered eating,” Hannon said. Because their brain is so plastic during puberty, “there’s a risk of ingraining those patterns in adolescence,” Miller said.
With so many unknowns, would teens with obesity be better off avoiding semaglutide? At least for now, many pediatricians are reluctant to prescribe it. “The idea of using anti-obesity pharmacotherapy was challenging even in adults a couple of years ago,” says Angela Fitch, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and the president of the Obesity Medicine Association; acceptance of its role in pediatric care is even further behind. But denying teens the drug, she told me, is the biggest risk: Teens develop an unhealthy mentality about their body when they don’t get help losing weight. Explaining to a teen that obesity is not their fault, and correcting the underlying biological issue with medication or other treatment, helps them to develop “a better body image about themselves,” she said.
None of the experts I spoke with flat-out said that semaglutide should never be used in adolescent treatment. Even those who were wary of the drug acknowledged that it might be medically appropriate in teens who really struggle with their weight and have little success losing it through any other means. That argument may only strengthen as more convenient drugs—or those with fewer side effects—are approved for teen use. This week, both Novo Nordisk and Pfizer announced that pill versions of these medications were successful in early trials.
Even without all of the answers on how this drug might affect teens in the long term, Fitch predicted that “the uptake of semaglutide and other anti-obesity medications in pediatric clinical care will be slow and gradual.” Eventually, they may come to be seen as just one of several weight-loss tools to help set up kids for healthier lives. Treating adolescent obesity shouldn’t be an “either-or” choice, Ludwig said: “It’s everything-and.” He has proposed that combining semaglutide with a low-carbohydrate diet, for example, could have synergistic effects on adolescent weight loss.
For the foreseeable future, semaglutide isn’t poised to take off for teens in the way that it has for adults. In spite of all the hype surrounding Ozempic, experts and their patients are left with a difficult choice based on different assessments of risk: what might happen if teens are treated with drugs, and what might happen if they’re not. Either way, teenagers have the most to benefit—and the most to lose.