The arteries of many obese children and teenagers are as thick and stiff as those of 45-year-olds, a sign that such children could have severe cardiovascular disease at a much younger age than their parents unless their condition is reversed, researchers said Tuesday.
"It's possible that they will have heart disease in their 20s and 30s," said Dr. Geetha Raghuveer of the University of Missouri at Kansas City, who led the study presented at a New Orleans meeting of the American Heart Association.
"As the old saying goes, you're as old as your arteries are," she said. "This is a wakeup call."
About a third of American children are overweight and one-fifth are obese. Research increasingly shows that fat kids become fat adults, with higher risks for many health problems.
"Obesity is not benign in children and adolescents," said Dr. Robert Eckel, a former heart association president and cardiologist at the University of Colorado-Denver. It is why the American Academy of Pediatrics recently recommended cholesterol-lowering drugs for some kids, he noted.
Raghuveer and her colleagues used ultrasound tests to measure the thickness of the wall of a major neck artery in 70 children, ages 10 to 16, many of whom were obese.
No one knows how thick a 10-year-old's artery should be, since they're not regularly checked for signs of heart disease, so researchers used tables for 45-year-olds, who often do get such exams.
The kids' "vascular age" was about 30 years older than their actual age, she found.
The artery thickening was most advanced in patients who were the most obese and had the highest levels of a type of cholesterol known as triglycerides,
But there is some hope.
"If we can identify the condition early and start modifying triglycerides, we can probably prevent progression and perhaps even promote regression," said Dr. John Kennedy, director of prevention cardiology at Marina del Rey Hospital, in the Los Angeles area.
A separate study tied childhood obesity to abnormal enlargement of the left atrium, one of the chambers of the heart. Enlargement is a known risk factor for heart disease, stroke and heart rhythm problems.
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