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Obese Kids Have Old Arteries

Tests showed their carotid artery walls as thick as that of a middle-aged person

TUESDAY, Nov. 11 (HealthDay News) -- Kids these days are 13 going on 45, at least when it comes to their arteries.

According to research presented Tuesday at the American Heart Association's annual scientific sessions in New Orleans, obese adolescents had arteries more representative of someone three decades older.

"These data further illustrate the potential detrimental effects of obesity and its related risk factors, particularly components of the metabolic syndrome, on cardiovascular disease in children," said Dr. Carl Lavie, medical director of cardiac rehabilitation and prevention director of the Stress Testing Laboratory at Ochsner Heart and Vascular Institute in New Orleans.

And even beyond the results of this study, said Dr. Catherine McNeal, an associate professor of internal medicine and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine and a pediatrician at Scott & White Hospital in Temple, "it is clear that obesity is a risk factor for the development of premature cardiovascular disease in youth."

According to one scoring measure, obesity in male adolescents is a greater risk factor for cardiovascular disease than smoking, McNeal noted.

Obesity and related health problems are a pressing issue in most countries.

"Certainly, there is considerable concern that there is an obesity epidemic in the U.S., including in our children who are becoming more sedentary, watching more and more TV, playing video games and on the computer as opposed to physical activity outside," Lavie said. "In fact, there is concern that if the current obesity epidemic continues [and it actually seems to be worsening], we will soon see an abrupt end to the steady improvement in life expectancy in the U.S."

Researchers at the University of Missouri Kansas City School of Medicine and Children's Mercy Hospital used ultrasound to measure the thickness of the inner walls of the carotid arteries, located in the neck, in 70 high-risk children aged 6 to 19.

Carotid artery intima-media thickness (CIMT) is a measure of atherosclerosis, or the fatty build-up within the arteries that can eventually choke the vessels, leading to a heart attack or stroke.

"Generally kids have much smaller CIMT than do adults, and this increases with age," Lavie explained. "In adults, CIMT has correlated with a risk of heart attack and stroke, so generally, it is well-recognized that having a thinner CIMT is preferable."

The average age of participants was 13, most were white, and about half were male. Fifty-seven percent had a body-mass index (BMI) above the 95th percentile for their age.

On average, participants' "vascular age," meaning the age at which this level of thickening would be normal, was three decades older than their chronological age.

Children who were obese and who had high triglyceride levels in the blood (triglycerides are a form of fat) were more likely to have advanced vascular age.

McNeal said it was worth noting that the study was a small one and lacked some statistical data, making her shy away from stating that the findings are conclusive.

In any case, researchers do need to explore whether losing weight and adopting healthier lifestyles could correct these problems. Other research indicates it could.

"The prevention of this starts prenatally, with educating mothers and fathers about the nutritional needs of raising an infant and a child," McNeal said. "Most young parents fail to understand the nutritional requirements of a child and fail to balance the caloric intake with energy expenditure. . . A study two years or so ago suggested that this generation of youth would be the first generation to not outlive their parents."

More information

Visit the Alliance for a Healthier Generation for more on kids and heart disease.

SOURCES: Carl J. Lavie, M.D., medical director, cardiac rehabilitation, and prevention director, Stress Testing Laboratory, Ochsner Heart and Vascular Institute, New Orleans; Catherine McNeal, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor, internal medicine and assistant professor, pediatrics, Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, and pediatrician, Scott & White Hospital, Temple, Texas; Nov. 11, 2008, presentation, American Heart Association's annual scientific sessions, New Orleans

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