Too Much Weight Tugs at Kids' Hearts

Overweight children show symptoms for coronary disease, diabetes

SUNDAY, Feb. 29, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Need more proof the U.S. childhood obesity crisis may be a ticking time bomb?

Researchers have found that many schoolchildren are exhibiting early risk factors of diabetes and heart disease, often displaying troubling symptoms that usually show up in adults.

In fact, a recent study found one in eight children have three or more risk factors for what doctors call metabolic syndrome, a cluster of symptoms that serve as an early warning signal for heart disease and diabetes. And more than half of the children have at least one of the risk factors.

These risk factors include high blood pressure, inefficient processing of glucose, elevated insulin levels, low levels of "good" HDL cholesterol and elevated triglycerides -- a fatty substance found in the blood.

But the real culprit is obesity, says study leader Joanne S. Harrell, director of the Center for Research on Chronic Illness at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"Almost half of our children are overweight or at risk for overweight," Harrell says. "These findings document what has been evident to most people who deal with a large number of children, that obesity is an epidemic in our youngsters."

If parents and educators don't take action, American kids could face an unhealthy and shortened life, says Dr. Henry McGill, a senior scientist emeritus at the Southwestern Foundation for Biomedical Research in Texas. McGill has researched the subject of children and heart disease for decades.

"We know enough about the risk factors related to lifestyle that if we could control them from adolescence or childhood, we could probably prevent 80 to 90 percent of coronary heart disease that happens prior to age 65 or 70," McGill says.

McGill and Harrell recommend a number of ways parents can protect their children:

  • Encourage kids to exercise and engage in active play;
  • Place them -- and the entire family -- on healthier diets, including more fruits and vegetables and less fat;
  • Quit smoking to offer children a healthy role model, and encourage them never to start;
  • Petition your schools to include more physical education, with an emphasis on active games that involve even non-athletic children;
  • Ask educators to remove soft drink and vending machines from schools, and provide healthy meals and snacks.

"There's no magic here," McGill says. "People have to eat less and move around more, although everything in our culture is against that."

Harrell's team followed more than 3,200 students, about half boys and half girls between the ages of 8 and 17, in a rural North Carolina county. The researchers evaluated each student's body mass index, a ratio of weight to height, along with other risk factors.

More than half of the children had at least one of the risk factors for metabolic syndrome. About one-quarter of the children had two or more factors, and one in eight had three or more.

Most troubling, about 8 percent of children aged 8 or 9 already displayed three or more risk factors, Harrell says.

Girls suffered more often from the risk factors, she says. About 16 percent of girls had three or more, compared with 10 percent of boys with three or more.

The most common risk factor was a lack of "good" HDL cholesterol. That was found in more than 40 percent of the children.

One in four children was classified as overweight. "We found that 26 percent were at or above the 95th percentile for expected weight given their age and gender," she says. "You would expect only 5 percent to be at that."

About an equal number were considered at risk for becoming overweight.

High levels of insulin were found in 16 percent of the children, high blood pressure in 10 percent, high triglycerides in 8 percent and glucose intolerance in about 5 percent.

Harrell, who presented her findings at a recent meeting of the American Heart Association, is reluctant to say the presence of the risk factors in children automatically means an unhealthy adulthood, citing a lack of research in that area.

But a recent study by Finnish researchers seems to point to that link. The scientists followed more than 2,000 children and teens and measured them for risk factors. They found if the children displayed several risk factors, they had a greater chance of suffering from hardening of the arteries as adults.

McGill says it's particularly frustrating to get the word out about this potential link because you're talking about symptoms that could take decades to result in a disease.

"It's a tough sell," he says. "Young people think they're immortal. Physicians don't get paid to prevent something that's going to occur 20 or 30 or 40 years later."

More information

To learn more about America's childhood obesity epidemic and what can be done about it, visit the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Nutrition Information Center.

SOURCES: Joanne S. Harrell, RN, Ph.D., FAAN, professor, nursing, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and director, university's Center for Research on Chronic Illness; Henry McGill, M.D., senior scientist emeritus, Southwestern Foundation for Biomedical Research, San Antonio
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