In recent years, the rate of obesity has gotten much worse in the United States, especially in college-aged Americans.

A new study, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, has found that the prevalence of obesity among people aged 18 to 25 has increased to 33% between 2017 and 2018. It was just over 6% between 1976 and 1980.

Study author Dr. Alejandra Ellison-Barnes of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine said, “We know that these are the trends that we’ve seen in children, adults, all age groups, but we were a little bit surprised by the magnitude of the increase.”

“We don’t know if it’s significantly higher than in children because we didn’t conduct that analysis, but it seems to be higher,” she added. “And we were surprised that the mean BMI [body mass index] in this age group is now in the overweight range.”

The researchers finding solutions for this problem in this age group might offer a huge public health opportunity, concluding that this age group may be a key target for preventing obesity, as this period is critical for adult development.

Dr. Ellison-Barnes explained, “Weight loss in general, and particularly the maintenance of weight loss, is notoriously challenging. Studies in the past have shown that even those – and this is applied to all adults not just emerging adults – but even those who are successful at losing weight often regain the majority of it within five years.”

“We’re hoping that we can look at emerging adulthood as potentially a critical period for preventing the establishment of overweight and obesity that would theoretically persist into adulthood because it is so hard to reverse once it’s established,” she added.

Dr. Caroline Apovian of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston said the study findings are consistent with other data she has seen.

She said, “The rate of obesity in every single age group is higher than it used to be.”

“There’s all these associations of other aspects of our environment that have changed as the obesity prevalence has increased,” Dr. Apovian explained.

“All we do know is it’s not completely relegated to genes because our genes have not really changed that drastically in that short a period of time, but what has changed is various aspects of the environment, including the food supply and what’s in the food supply,” she added.

Obesity is associated with a greater risk of chronic health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Dr. Ellison-Barnes said, “Obesity in this population really has increased significantly, and it’s really important that we work to understand the factors contributing to that so that we can develop appropriate preventive interventions and treatment interventions for emerging adults.”