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Children and Heart Disease: What's Wrong With This Picture?

As more children become obese, pediatric heart disease is becoming more common.

The Childhood Obesity Epidemic continued...

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.

Solutions to Childhood Obesity

Experts agree the obvious and urgent starting point is weight loss. Once weight is reduced to a healthy level, some of the other risk factors take care of themselves. And even children with greatly increased heart disease risks might be able to turn things around.

Alex did. She and her doctors decided on gastric bypass surgery -- not a panacea, Kimball emphasizes, but a wise treatment for carefully selected patients. While waiting for the operation, Alex exercised more. Walking was her main form of exercise. She also played golf, biked, and swam when she could. She followed a diet that emphasized plenty of protein but much less fat, and she measured servings so portion sizes were reasonable. She lost about 20 pounds and remained on statin drugs to lower her cholesterol, then had the surgery when she was 15.

Three years later, Alex's weight has decreased, and she is losing more weight by continuing to follow the high-protein, low-fat diet. She is down to 240 pounds and still working at it. Her goal is a BMI below 25 -- considered a healthy level. For her, that's about 143 pounds. And she not only has reduced her risk of having a heart attack or stroke but also has reclaimed her life. "She's an active 19-year-old, in college and working full time. She is an avid golfer now and played softball her senior year of high school. She's keeping up with everyone. She's in a whole new realm of life," Benton says.

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