Here’s a statistic that should floor you: One in five American children and teens have abnormal levels of cholesterol. Their LDL or bad cholesterol is too high or their HDL or good cholesterol, which has a protective role, is too low (or both). These kids have a high risk of developing heart disease and if disease does occur, it will come too soon in their young adult lives.
The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) released a new report that looked at cholesterol profiles among kids ages 6-19 from the years 2011 to 2014. Though the data showed both elevated levels of LDL and too low levels of HDL in significant numbers of children and teens, it was really the low HDL that was found to be the most prevalent abnormality.
The report further found that:
- 7.4% of the children and teens had high total cholesterol readings (due to high LDL) levels.
- 13.4% of the group had low HDL levels.
- Overall 21% of children and teens had at least one abnormal cholesterol level measure
- Teens had higher rates of elevated LDL levels compared to the children.
- High total cholesterol was greater among non-Hispanic black and non-Hispanic Asian children and teens, and lower among non-Hispanic whites and Hispanic children and teens.
- Girls overall had higher rates of total cholesterol and high LDL levels, but lower rates of low HDL levels, compared to boys the same age.
This data serves as a wake-up call for several reasons**:**
- Children and teens with obesity were more likely to have cholesterol abnormalities.
- Currently obesity is at alarming levels among children and teens. The correlation to risk of heart disease is clear.
- Cholesterol abnormalities in childhood can persist into adulthood. That can mean lifelong drug therapy with drugs that do have possible unwanted side effects.
- Along with the abnormal cholesterol levels, hypertension is another finding in younger and younger children, and it’s being classified as “at epidemic levels” by some experts. Hypertension falls under the heart disease category.
Cholesterol Abnormalities Linked to Heart Disease
Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women. Experts are now seeing heart disease in children as young as eight years old. Typically these children already carry excess weight and their cholesterol levels are abnormal. To improve the cardiovascular profile of the U.S. population, new clinical practice guidelines suggest screening children and teens for risk factors. Those risk factor screenings should include:
- Height and weight
- Minutes of exercise daily and weekly
- Blood pressure
- Blood tests including cholesterol profile and triglyceride level
- Daily and weekly diet discussion
What We Can Do
It is time to sound the alarm and get parents, pediatricians, schools and the public health community involved in reducing these numbers. Neighborhoods need to be safe for walking, biking, skating and outdoor play. Supermarkets in the neighborhood need to showcase and offer affordable produce, lean proteins, nuts, beans, legumes, low-fat dairy, and really highlight these choices over the more popular and unhealthy processed foods.
Parents need to form alliances with their pediatrician and their schools so P.E. is on the schedule, school lunches are healthier and some physical movement moments happen even during classes. Some schools now have standing desks or under-the-desk mini pedal machines to encourage physical activity that is non-disruptive during lessons. Vending machines need to offer healthier, nutrient dense options, no sweetened drinks, and the school curriculum needs to offer lesson plans that include nutrition and fitness education. Parents also need to try to cook simpler, nutritious meals, at home, and limit eating out. Levels of added sugar, saturated fat and salt need close scrutiny. It’s also time to stop using food rewards.
Though this data is alarming, there are steps and measure we can take to combat this health problem. Your kids and teens’ lives are at stake.
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”