High cholesterol isn’t a problem limited to adulthood. In fact, it’s becoming more common in children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that among youths aged 12-19 years, 14% of kids who are normal weight and 43% of children who are obese have at least one abnormal cholesterol level.
The alarming aspect of those numbers is that typically kids with high cholesterol are more likely to have high cholesterol as adults, putting them at higher risk for heart disease.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that all children, regardless of risk or family history, have their cholesterol checked between ages 9-11.
WHY SO YOUNG?
The young age range for when children should be tested might surprise some parents, but high cholesterol is usually a silent condition. It can happen with or without the presence of obesity, diabetes or family history. Studies have shown that the negative effects of high cholesterol in children may occur early in life. Without screening the general population, those children at risk remain undetected.
Even if your child doesn’t have high cholesterol, which is the ideal scenario, it’s helpful for your pediatrician to have a baseline level before your child goes through puberty. The choice of age range 9-11 is based primarily on the potential to intervene more effectively if an abnormality is detected in this age group relative to younger children.
EARLY TESTING MEANS EARLY PREVENTION
Identifying high cholesterol in childhood leads to earlier interventions aimed at preventing atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (hardening of the arteries) and reversing any changes that have already occurred. Too much cholesterol can lead to a buildup of plaque on the walls of the arteries that transport blood to the heart and other organs. When this happens, arteries can become narrowed and blocked.
The good news is that these buildups take decades to occur, but atherosclerotic changes begin in childhood. In addition, they speed up when someone also has other conditions such as dyslipidemia, obesity, hypertension and diabetes. Early prevention in children can lead to better chances for reversing these early changes and decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease in adulthood. Establishing healthy diet and exercise habits in childhood gives kids the best chance to be healthy active adults.
HOW TO DECREASE HIGH CHOLESTEROL IN KIDS
So what do those interventions look like? Typically in our lipid clinic we recommend lifestyle changes including diet and exercise to help decrease high cholesterol levels.
Here are some general recommendations we give our patients for maintaining a healthy diet and lowering cholesterol:
- Read food labels carefully.
- Limit dietary fat to less than 25% of total daily calories (in particular, reduced saturated fats to less than 10% of daily calories).
- Limit cholesterol to less than 300 mg per day.
- Increase intake of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
- Choose nonfat or low-fat milk and dairy products.
- Be active for 60 minutes every day.
- Limit screen time to 2 hours or less per day (including gaming devices and computers).
If your pediatrician does not mention cholesterol testing for your child at their next well-child visit and your child is between the ages of 9-11, I recommend you bring it up. Checking cholesterol levels in this age range is an important step to ensure that children are on the right track for a healthy heart later in life.
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