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Spare Tire Gives Boys a Bumpy Health Ride

New study says boys with extra weight around their middle face extra health risks as adults

FRIDAY, Feb. 8, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Boys who harbor a "spare tire" of extra weight around their middle may have higher blood pressure than girls of equal girth.

Further, as these chubby boys get older, they are also at risk for ventricular hypertrophy -- or enlarged heart -- a condition that can dramatically increase their risk of heart attack as a middle-age adult, a new study says.

The study, published in the current issue of Circulation, is among the first to document a gender-specific weight risk link to high blood pressure in children, the researchers say.

"What surprised us most about our finding was that the problem existed in boys, but not in girls," says lead author Dympna Gallagher, associate professor of nutrition at the Obesity Research Center, St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital's Institute of Human Nutrition, in New York City.

"One would expect to see similar results in children of both sexes, particularly before puberty. However, this wasn't the case. And I think that as time goes on, we may come to see even more important differences between the genders prior to puberty," Gallagher says.

According to pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Ileana Vargas, the new study represents an important step forward in understanding the long-reaching effects of weight problems in children -- as well as the influence of hormones before puberty.

"Perhaps the same factors that protect women against cardiovascular disease prior to menopause may also help protect little girls in ways we have yet to discover," says Vargas, assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City.

The new study included 442 girls and 478 boys who were all considered healthy. They ranged in age from 5 to 18 years, and there was an almost even distribution among racial groups.

All the children were checked for both blood pressure and measurement of body fat; the location of that fat was also noted in the research.

The end result: Overall, the researchers found more trunk fat was associated with higher blood pressure.

However, says Gallagher, upon closer examination, they realized it was only the boys who seemed to be affected. Those most affected had the classic "spare tire" that, perhaps not coincidentally, is also associated with cardiovascular risks among men.

"It's also important to note that we took the fat measurement using two different methods -- the skin fold test and a method called DXA. So we had a very accurate reading," Gallagher says.

DXA is short for duel energy absorptiometry, a scan that measures bone mineral density and body composition, helping to sort out body fat from lean muscle and tissue.

It's also important to note that while the blood pressure of these boys was elevated, it was still within what's called a "high-normal" range. For children, normal pressure ranges from 115/75 for 5-year-olds to 126/78 for 15-year-olds.

The significance of the higher blood pressure among the chubby boys might not become apparent until they are much older.

"It may indicate a tendency towards high blood pressure as a adult -- and the correlating increased risk of heart attack and other complications of hypertension," says Gallagher.

In a second study also published in the current issue of Circulation, a group of British researchers report that low birth weight babies who gain weight too quickly as infants and in early childhood have an increased risk of high blood pressure as adults.

Although previous studies have shown that low birth weight babies often grow up to have hypertension problems, researchers didn't know why. While one theory suggests slow development before birth might affect a kind of internal clock that controls blood pressure, others think something occurs during the quick growth spurt known as "catch-up."

Now, researchers from the University of South Hampton in England, where the study took place, say it's likely something does occur during "catch-up" period that influences blood pressure in adulthood.

The finding does not surprise Vargas.

"I think the real take-home message in both these studies is clear -- overweight children are at greater risk for health problems as adults," says Vargas.

While people may think a chubby baby or a chubby child is cute, says Vargas, "I don't think many parents realize that this extra weight is putting their child at risk for health problems. And both these studies are good examples of why parents should be concerned about children who are overweight."

Gallagher agrees, and adds children of parents who are overweight are the ones most likely to have these problems, both as children and as adults.

"It's a serious issue, and I hope our study helps to point out that it's not only overweight adults who are at risk for serious health problems, but overweight children as well," says Gallagher.

What To Do

To learn more about blood pressure and children, visit The Heart Center Online.

You can find more information on obesity in children at KidsHealth.com.

SOURCES: Interviews with Dympna Gallagher, Ed.D, associate professor, nutrition, Obesity Research Center, St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital, Institute of Human Nutrition, New York City; Ileana Vargas, M.D., assistant clinical professor, pediatrics, Division of Pediatric Endocrinology, Babies and Children's Hospital, and pediatric endocrinologist, Naomi Berry Diabetes Center, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, New York City; Feb. 4, 2002, Circulation
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