Children and Heart Disease: What's Wrong With This Picture?
As more children become obese, pediatric heart disease is becoming more common.
Few parents expect their children to develop heart disease. So when her
daughter Alex started gaining weight at age 7, Tammy Benton was concerned --
but not overly concerned. Working with a pediatrician, she tried to encourage
Alex to eat more healthfully.
"I didn't talk 'diet' to her," recalls Benton, 46, of Essexville, Mich.
Instead, she pointed her daughter to better choices such as fruit instead of
candy. Alex did lose some weight but eventually gained it back. By the time she
was 14, she weighed 320 pounds. This time, Benton and her daughter had a
serious discussion with their pediatrician, who referred them to heart
Benton, who takes cholesterol-lowering medications, was worried not only
about Alex's weight but also with how her own history of high cholesterol would
affect both her daughters. Alex, now 19, and Benton's other daughter, Sidney,
now 17, have had high cholesterol since they were 8 years old. By age 12, Alex
needed medication to lower her cholesterol.
Even so, Benton wasn't prepared for what the heart doctors had to say. "They
talked about Alex's increased risk factors [for heart disease] and her chances
of heart attack and stroke." And they weren't referring to her future risk as
an adult -- but to her immediate risk. "Keep in mind Alex was 14 years old.
When they start talking to you about your child having a heart attack or
stroke, it's horrifying," she says.
The Childhood Obesity Epidemic
Like Benton, most parents are surprised at the gravity of the risks
associated with childhood obesity -- and that the risks are immediate, not down
the road in adulthood, says Thomas Kimball, MD, a pediatric cardiologist at
Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and professor of pediatrics at
the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.
But unfortunately, the statistics tell the sober truth: Childhood obesity
has skyrocketed in the past three decades, according to the CDC. Stats for
1976–1980 show that 6.5% of children ages 6 to 11 were obese; by 2003-2006,
that number had jumped to 17%. Similarly, only 5% of preteens and teens ages 12
to 19 were obese in 1976–1980; but 17.6% of this age group were found to be
obese in 2003-2006. ("Obese" is defined as having a body mass index above the
95th percentile compared with other children of the same age and gender.)
Obesity, in turn, is triggering a host of other heart disease risk factors
in children, such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol
-- considered "adult" health problems until recently. The result? A higher risk
of heart disease and stroke at young ages, Kimball says. "We're seeing changes
in heart structure and artery structure [in kids] that we normally don't see
until well into adulthood," Kimball says.
The cholesterol problem among children and teens has gotten so bad that some
doctors are prescribing cholesterol-lowering statins (such as Lipitor) for
children, although the practice is controversial. "It's still pretty rare, but
it is happening," Kimball says.