Our sedentary ways have resulted in nearly one-third of children being overweight or obese. The growth in high cholesterol in children is a disturbing trend, but it can often be corrected.
Whether caused by family history, poor nutrition or lack of exercise, high cholesterol is something to take seriously. Studies suggest a build up of plaque in the arteries begins in childhood. This cholesterol overload that starts in childhood places children at increased risk of heart disease during early and middle adulthood, much sooner than what would be expected.
Although the most common reasons for high cholesterol are poor diet, being overweight and not getting enough exercise, some apparently healthy children inherit high cholesterol levels from their parents. Even active children may have high cholesterol.
It is recommended that children with a family history of high cholesterol or of early heart disease should have a complete cholesterol profile as young as age 2. A family history of early heart disease includes any children with a parent, grandparent, sibling, aunt or uncle with high cholesterol or who has suffered a cardiac event before the age of 55.
Children with a family history of high cholesterol may have no symptoms or signs of their condition and often do not fit the profile of someone who is at risk. Usually, they have a normal weight and a healthy lifestyle and diet. In addition to a family history of high cholesterol, they usually have a family history of early heart disease.
The only way to know for certain whether a child has high cholesterol is by performing a complete cholesterol profile after overnight fasting.
If the child's cholesterol is high, modifications to diet and increased physical activity are the first-line treatments. Cholesterol levels in children who are overweight or obese usually respond well to diet and lifestyle modifications.
Statin therapy, which are drugs to reduce cholesterol, are an option but it is a lifetime commitment. Over years of study, statins have been found to be safe and effective, even for children as young as 8.
Statins should not be used indiscriminately. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends their use if a child, usually older than age 10 in a boy and after start of menses in a girl, continues to have high cholesterol after 6-12 months of diet and lifestyle changes. The cutoff levels for considering a statin medication are if the child has an LDL level, the "bad cholesterol," over 190 mg/dL with no other risk factors for heart disease or an LDL of 160 mg/dL plus two risk factors for heart disease, such as a family history, obesity, sedentary lifestyle or high blood pressure. An ideal LDL target is 130 mg/dL or less.
Lifestyle changes to manage high cholesterol in children can do more than help offset heart disease as they become adults. Healthy habits started young, like regular exercise and healthy eating, can have lasting benefits throughout life.