It appears that America’s fast-paced, convenience-based lifestyle has been found to harm children in ways far more dangerous than the stress of over-scheduling and the cost of reduced family time. A new study presented at an American Heart Association meeting held in San Francisco suggests that overweight teenagers who consume an excessive amount of salty foods are at risk for a greater rate of cellular aging. Visit any mall in America, find an open bench, and sit and watch the teens pass by and you will notice quickly that a great number of them (approximately one in three) are overweight, even obese. Childhood obesity is nothing new in America, as evidenced by First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against it. What the study adds to the already negative health factors that arise from obesity is the finding that overweight teens are more sensitive to salt, which actually hastens the cellular aging process.
Researchers divided 766 teenagers, ages 14 – 18, and divided them into two groups according to the amount of salt they consumed. Those in the low-intake group ate less than 2,400 mg on average per day. The other group, dubbed the high-intake group, averaged a daily salt intake of more than 4,100 mg. Noteworthy is that all of the teenagers in the study consumed more than the 1,500 mg per day that is recommended by the American Heart Association.
The study’s lead author, Dr. Haidong Zhu, works as an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Georgia, Georgia Regents University, located in Augusta, GA. Zhu told CBS News that although all teens in the study were fairly healthy, researchers noted that they showed signs of a high intake of salt, which suggested to researchers that obesity and high salt intake may act together to accelerate cellular aging. Because sodium raises blood pressure, excessive salt consumption is an important factor in the development of heart disease. America’s parents, so rushed in today’s society of work, work, work and then run the kids to a myriad of sports and after-school activities, have quite simply lost the time necessary to eat and prepare healthful foods. It is much easier to swing by a drive-thru or toss pre-packaged snacks into a bag so the busy family can eat on the go. However, with the new study’s findings, it seems that the culture of quick can cause not only childhood obesity, but also to carry a higher risk of heart disease.
For the study, researchers studied the ends of chromosomes, telomeres, which act to protect the chromosomes themselves, in order to determine how they were affected by salt. Although telomeres naturally shorten as part of the aging process, factors such as smoking, high percentage of body fat and little exercise will speed up this process. Although smoking has decreased among America’s teenagers, it is evident that a wired lifestyle spent in front of devices and computers is not amenable to physical activity, leading to a high rate of childhood obesity. Zhu’s study, which was funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and the first to delve into the effect sodium has on telomere length, found that overweight teenagers who consumed high levels of salt had much shorter telomeres than teens who also ate high levels of salt but were of normal weight, meaning that merely being overweight causes salt to affect the body more than it does in those who are not. Part of this stems from the fact that, as a rule, overweight teens have more inflammation in their bodies, which in and of itself shortens telomeres, raising the rate of cellular aging. Inflammation increases their body’s sensitivity to sodium, which in turn raises the risk of heart disease by increasing blood pressure. It is a nasty combination of factors all working together in an overweight teen’s body to accelerate the process of cellular aging and increase the risk of heart disease.
One good result of this study for parents of overweight teenagers and teens themselves that are worried about cellular aging and the risk for heart disease is that it is much easier to lower salt consumption than it is to diet in order to lose weight. As most of the salt consumed by teenagers is a result of processed foods, eating more fresh meals prepared at home and switching out salty snacks with fruit could have an impact not only on the rate of childhood obesity, but also on the faster cellular aging process caused by sodium. Although the study does not grant the American family more time to prepare healthful meals, it just may provide incentive enough to compel them to find the time.
Opinion by Jennifer Pfalz