Cholesterol and Your Child

Most adults know that high cholesterol places a person at risk for cardiovascular disease which is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States. But when it comes to their kids, many parents don't even think about cholesterol levels.

Research now shows that adult cardiovascular disease has its roots in childhood, and parents should be paying attention to lipid levels in kids, especially if the parents themselves have high cholesterol.

What Are Lipids and Cholesterol?

Lipids are fats in the bloodstream and in all of the body's cells. Among the components of the lipids in your blood are triglycerides, which come from the fats you eat or are made by your body from other things you eat, including carbohydrates. If the calories you consume are not used immediately for energy, they are stored as triglycerides in the fat cells. Then they are released when your body needs energy, such as between meals. Having too many triglycerides has been linked to coronary artery disease.

A certain amount of cholesterol is important to the healthy function of your body. It is an oily substance that is used to build cell walls and form some hormones and tissues. But too high a level of cholesterol in the blood, known as hypercholesterolemia, is a major risk factor for heart disease and can lead to a heart attack.

You accumulate cholesterol in two ways. The liver produces about 1,000 milligrams of cholesterol a day. Another 150 to 250 milligrams comes from the foods you eat. Foods from animals, particularly egg yolks, meat, poultry, seafood, and whole-milk dairy products, have cholesterol. Vegetables, fruits, and grains do not contain cholesterol.

If you never ate another bowl of ice cream or another cheeseburger, your body would have enough cholesterol to run smoothly. The body typically makes enough to function, so you really don't need to eat it. But that's not as easy as it sounds because so many of the foods we eat today contain cholesterol.

Why Are High Lipids and Cholesterol a Concern?

High levels of triglycerides and cholesterol are a major risk factor for coronary artery disease, also known as atherosclerosis. An adult's heart attack or stroke has its origins in the development of atherosclerosis, which begins in earnest during the late teen years. Paying attention to cholesterol levels in children can lead to proper diet and medical treatment throughout life, slowing the progress of atherosclerosis, and either delaying or preventing heart attacks and stroke.

"High LDL cholesterol is a risk factor for coronary artery disease later in life, and there are a small number of children [1 in 500] who have inherited very high cholesterol levels and are at risk for heart disease as young and early middle-aged adults," says Dr. Samuel Gidding, attending cardiologist.

Aside from the group of children who are at risk for heart disease as young adults, most children are already building plaque in their arteries, Dr. Gidding says. "Autopsy studies show that atherosclerotic plaque is present in about 15% to 20% of the population by age 20. Those with heart disease risk factors [high cholesterol, smoking, severe obesity, and hypertension] are most likely to have this plaque," he says.

Childhood cholesterol levels were not tracked until recently, and some experts think that high cholesterol in kids is a major underreported public health problem.

The health risks associated with high cholesterol - heart disease and stroke, for example - generally don't show up for years, even decades, so making the connection between kids and cholesterol is difficult for many people. Children with elevated cholesterol levels may be a precursor, some doctors believe, to a generation of teenagers with cardiovascular disease.

The government, for its part, has recognized the issue but has yet to make specific recommendations. The recommendations in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Healthy People 2010, released in 2000, include specific goals to reduce cholesterol levels in adults. For children, however, the government proposes objectives regarding school health education and addresses the issue of obesity in children and adolescents without targeting high cholesterol.


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