Young people’s use of diabetes and weight loss drugs is up 600 percent 

GLP-1 drug dispensing has rapidly increased since 2020 

A stock image of a white box containing three blue injector pens. The box is labeled with the words weight loss and semaglutide.

Use of Ozempic and related drugs that mimic the hormone GLP-1 has been on the rise in recent years, especially in young women.

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Researchers have clocked a rapid surge of young people receiving popular diabetes and weight loss drugs. 

From 2020 to 2023, the number of U.S. adolescents and young adults who picked up prescriptions for Ozempic, Wegovy and related drugs rocketed up nearly 600 percent — from roughly 8,700 people to more than 60,000, scientists report May 22 in JAMA.

That spike “palpably feels like a massive increase,” says Joyce Lee, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. In comparison, the number of young people receiving other medications stayed relatively flat over the same period.

The drugs, GLP-1 receptor agonists, have gained a reputation in recent years for their drastic effect on weight — and other health benefits (SN: 12/13/23)

First approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2005, GLP-1 drugs have continued to roll in. Ozempic, an injectable form of the drug semaglutide, was approved for adults with type 2 diabetes in 2017; liraglutide for weight loss in adults in 2014 and kids 12 and older in 2020; and Wegovy, high dose semaglutide, for weight loss in adults in 2021. A year later, Wegovy’s approval extended to kids. 

Lee’s team wanted to find out what was happening in the real world: Who was actually receiving these drugs? The researchers analyzed information about people ages 12 to 25 using a database that reports prescriptions from U.S. pharmacies. 

The uptick Lee’s team reported in people receiving GLP-1 drugs wasn’t surprising, she says, given enthusiasm among doctors and patients. What stood out was the extent of the rise — and the difference between males and females. More than three times as many females ages 18 to 25 received the drugs than males of the same age. That may reflect societal bias around weight, she says. 

Lee wants to learn more about the medications’ safety, side effects and how well they work over time. Clinical trials have shown that the drugs can spur weight loss, she says, “but we don’t know what the long-term effects are.”

Meghan Rosen is a staff writer who reports on the life sciences for Science News. She earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis in biotechnology from the University of California, Davis, and later graduated from the science communication program at UC Santa Cruz.

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