New studies suggest that one in three children between the ages of 9 and 11 in Texas have troubling high levels of cholesterol. This was found to be the case even in children who are a normal weight. This discovery is particularly troubling because of how children with high cholesterol levels are at a greater life-time risk for cardiovascular disease.
In adults, obesity and high cholesterol levels often go hand in hand. Eating foods high in saturated fats and trans fats contribute not only to weight gain but also to high levels of cholesterol. Once gained, those additional pounds also contribute to the reducing of the amount of HDL cholesterol (otherwise known as “high-density lipoprotein” or the “good cholesterol”).
However the results from this new study suggest that in children, even kids that are not obese are at risk for having high levels of cholesterol. In fact it was found that 35 percent of children who were of a normal weight still had abnormal cholesterol levels. This exceeded previous estimations that had supposed the prevalence of high childhood cholesterol levels to be 20 percent.
The data upon which these conclusions were drawn was from a study of children at Texas Children’s Hospital that was conducted by lead investigator Dr. Thomas Seery. It is worth noting that while Texan children may not be representative of children across America, the serious nature of these results is worth further investigation.
The discovery that children have such a high prevalence of high cholesterol levels is particularly troubling because this condition puts these kids at risk for a lifetime of health problems. High levels of cholesterol can cause the arteries in the body to narrow over time, making it more difficult for blood to flow through. In addition, the build-up of cholesterol can cause the arteries to harden and thus be unable to dilate to allow more blood flow. Both of these factors contribute to high blood pressure. In severe cases, the arteries can become blocked and lead to a heart attack or stroke.
Many will find the idea that children can suffer from high cholesterol levels difficult to accept. Currently, most of the advocacy for cholesterol-testing is geared towards adults—particularly at high-risk groups of adults such as those over age 50 or with a family history of high blood pressure. The American Heart Association recommends beginning to check cholesterol levels every five years starting at age 20. However, in a stirring decision made in 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated guidelines for checking child cholesterol levels starting between the ages of 9 and 11. These new guidelines were set in place as a result of the ever-growing body of evidence that indicates that atherosclerosis and other cardiovascular diseases have their start in early adolescence.
The troubling findings about children’s high levels of cholesterol not only call for more scientific investigation, but also demand that both parents and children step up to take responsibility for living a healthy life-style. Adopting a healthy diet that is low in saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol is a key component of achieving this goal, particularly for children that are still adopting life-long food preferences. Exercise is also essential, especially in an era where children can easily remain rooted in front of a screen for the entire day. Finally, maintaining a smoke-free environment also helps reduce the risk of developing high cholesterol. Taken together with regular check-ups, it is hoped the startlingly high levels of cholesterol found in children can be prevented from turning into a lifetime of health problems.
By Sarah Takushi
Center for Disease Control and Prevention