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Obese teens are much more likely to become severely obese adults, and the risk is highest for black women, according to a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association.People who are extremely obese, with a body mass index of 40 or higher, are prone to serious and often life-threatening health problems, the researchers said. The rate of obesity is higher in women and minorities.

In the year 2000, about 4.8 million adults, or 2.2 percent of the population, were classified as severely obese, the authors said.

“Yet few national studies track individuals over time to understand the progression of obesity to severe obesity,” they wrote. “Understanding which individuals are at risk of severe obesity is essential for determining when interventions would need to be implemented.”

Lead author Natalie S. The of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her team looked at data from 8,834 people ages 12 to 21 years old, including their height and weight. The participants were given questionnaires to fill out at home. The study was part of a larger national health survey that lasted from 1996 until 2009.

New cases of severe obesity in adulthood were documented, with information about gender, race, ethnicity and teen body mass index collected.

The researchers found that 60 of 79 people who were severely obese as adolescents in 1996 remained severely obese as adults between 2007 and 20009. In the 13 years between adolescence and adulthood, 703 new cases of severe obesity in adulthood developed, making the total rate 7.9 percent.

The severely obese adults had a higher BMI as teenagers and were more likely to be women and racial or ethnic minorities, the findings showed.

“It points out the social factors that contribute to overeating in our society,” NYU food studies professor Marion Nestle told AOL Health. “People who are socially discriminated against, either because of race, poverty or both, are at highest risk for obesity. The best thing we could do to improve the health of our nation would be to reduce our extreme income inequities.”

But the study findings aren’t exactly surprising or groundbreaking, according to Nestle.

“I’m not sure why this is news,” she said. “This has been known for a long time.”

An analysis of the data showed that obese teens were far more likely to develop severe obesity as adults than those of normal weight or even those who were overweight during adolescence.

“A substantial proportion of obese adolescents became severely obese by their early 30s, with significant variation by sex,” the authors wrote.

They said that 37.1 percent of the men who were obese as adolescents and 51.3 percent of the women were severely obese adults. The highest rate of severe obesity was among black women, at 52.4 percent. And less than 5 percent of those who were of normal weight as teenagers became severely obese when they grew up.

“The clinical implications of these observed trends are concerning given the comorbidities and chronic disease associated with severe obesity,” the authors said. “The findings highlight the need for interventions prior to adulthood to prevent the progression of obesity to severe obesity, which may reduce severe obesity incidence and its potentially life-threatening consequences.”

Catherine Donaldson-Evans