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Obese, Diabetic Youths Have Artery Plaque

Findings Suggest Early Heart Disease
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WebMD Health News

May 26, 2009 -- Teens and young adults who are obese or have type 2 diabetes show early warning signs of heart disease, a new study shows.

Researchers from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital used ultrasound imaging to confirm the presence of fatty plaque buildup in the carotid arteries of young people who were obese or had type 2 diabetes. Carotid arteries are found in the neck and carry blood from the heart to the brain.

Compared to normal-weight youths, the carotid arteries of obese youths and diabetic youths were thicker and stiffer, according to study findings.

Carotid artery thickness and stiffness are risk factors for heart attack and stroke in adults.

Evidence of plaque buildup in this critical artery early in life strongly suggests that the obesity epidemic in children will have a dramatic impact on heart and vascular disease rates in the years to come, study authors say.

“Because this damage is progressive and has started so early, this may be the first generation that has a shorter life expectancy than their parents,” said lead researcher Elaine Urbina, MD, who is director of preventive cardiology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.

Obesity and Heart Disease

The study included 128 children, teens, and young adults (age range 10 to 24) with type 2 diabetes, which is strongly associated with obesity; 136 obese young people without diabetes; and 182 age-matched youth without diabetes who were not overweight.

The average age of the study participants was 18.

Not surprisingly, those with obesity or type 2 diabetes were more likely than the normal-weight youths to have several traditional heart disease risk factors, including high blood pressure and high cholesterol. But these differences only partly explained the significant changes in carotid artery thickness and stiffness.

The participants with type 2 diabetes had the most plague buildup in their carotid arteries, but non-diabetic obese participants were not far behind, and both groups displayed similar significant increases in carotid artery stiffness compared to lean controls.

Urbina says this suggests that obesity-related artery damage may be occurring long before obesity-related diseases do.

“It appears that this functional abnormality is already present in obese youth well before they go on to develop type 2 diabetes,” she tells WebMD.

The new research appears in the latest issue of the American Heart Association journal Circulation.

What Should Kids' Arteries Look Like?

It was not clear how abnormal the carotid arteries of the obese and diabetic children, teens, and young adults in the study were because there is little to define normal in these age groups, Urbina says.

“We know what the carotid arteries of someone who is 35 or 40 are supposed to look like, but we are not really sure what they should look like in younger people because this has not been studied,” she says.

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