Mysterious malady, lifetime of problems

(KABC) A nutrition lesson is giving 17-year-old Maria Benoy a chance at better health for the rest of her life.

"I didn't really have much of a weight problem until I was like 10 or 11," said Maria.

In her mid-teens, Maria put on a fast 40 pounds.

"I just felt that this was how it was going to be for the rest of my life," said Maria.

But there was more to the story. Two years ago, Maria was diagnosed with PCOS, a hormonal disease that's often not diagnosed until women are well into their 20s.

"There is a definite risk of ignoring the symptoms, and making the disease worse over the long term," said reproductive endocrinologist Dr. Kathleen Hoeger.

PCOS is characterized by an overproduction of male hormones in women, and also high insulin levels. Weight gain, hair growth and acne are early signs. It raises the risk of heart disease, infertility, and diabetes.

"You cannot erase the fact that you have this tendency towards PCOS, but you can control the symptoms and maybe make no consequences for you across your lifetime," said Dr. Hoeger.

Dr. Hoeger says controlling PCOS early on lowers the risks of infertility, miscarriages, diabetes, heart disease, and uterine cancer. In her study, girls get a hormonal treatment and learn the importance of healthy eating and exercise.

"Many of the girls have lost a fair amount of weight -- certainly more than the goal we set for them of five percent," said Dr. Hoeger.

Maria has lost 40 pounds.

"Not many people are given the opportunity to fix this at such a young age, so I really feel lucky," said Maria.

With her PCOS under control, Maria is now dancing lighter -- and stronger -- on her feet.

A pelvic ultrasound can be used to confirm a diagnosis of PCOS. In treatment, weight loss is key. Research shows losing just five-percent of excess body weight can improve fertility.

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