Obesity is a serious public health issue, especially among teenagers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of children and adolescents in the U.S. were overweight or obese in 2012. And being overweight in adolescence is thought to increase risk of developing many health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Could it also lead to heart failure?

Researchers examined data collected from more than 1.6 million men registered with The Swedish Military Service Conscription Register. The registry followed men from the time they enlisted at age 18 up to 42 years after the fact, with the average follow-up time being 23 years, according to a press release. Results showed that 5,492 men were admitted to the hospital for heart failure — a risk that greatly increased the higher their body mass index was at the time of enlistment, even after researchers adjusted for factors like age, medical history, and parental education.

Men with a body mass index of 20 to 22.5 were 22 percent more likely to develop heart failure than men with a normal BMI of 18.5 to 20. The risk doubled for men with a BMI of 22.5 to 25; tripled for men with a BMI of 25 to 27.5; and increased more than six-fold for obese men with a BMI of 30 to 35. There was a nearly ten-fold risk for obese men with a BMI of 35 or more.

That men with a BMI of 20 or more was a risk factor came as a surprise to researchers.

"Although most studies define a normal weight as having a BMI between 18.5 and 25, this is probably not an appropriate definition in the young, most of whom are naturally thin. This may be why we see an increase in the risk of heart failure starting at a fairly low BMI level,” stated Annika Rosengren, lead author of the study. “However, it was surprising to see the very steep increase in risk with increasing body weight above a BMI of 20.”

Based on these findings, Rosengren predicts heart failure is poised to become a major health problem worldwide, and the study's findings "underline the urgent need for action...to curb the obesity epidemic." She stressed that these actions should not only focus on improving sedentary behavior and diet, but also the importance of maintaining a healthy body weight from an early age.

While the large sample size is certainly a plus, researchers believe their findings may only be applicable to men, noting that women generally have a lower risk of heart failure than men. The study also didn’t collect any information on weight gain after the men were 18, so a slightly greater weight at 18 could be an indicator of "an increased risk of subsequently becoming overweight or obese, which in itself would be a risk factor for heart failure.”

Source: Rosengren A, et al. Body Weight in Adolescence and Long-Term Risk of Early Heart Failure in Adulthood Among Men in Sweden. European Heart Journal. 2016.