"We were surprised that the children had developed vascular abnormalities at such a young age and by how readily these could be reversed with simple lifestyle measures," says Kam S. Woo, M.D., chair and professor of medicine and therapeutics and a consultant cardiologist at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The researchers studied 54 boys and 28 girls, average age 9.9 years. Based on body mass index (BMI), 28 were deemed overweight and 54 were obese.
The study did not include children with a family history of early heart disease, but the youngsters already showed signs of early atherosclerosis. Using ultrasound, the researchers measured the ability of the brachial artery in the arm to expand in response to increased blood flow. This response is called endothelium-dependent dilation, and is a measure of an artery's reactivity.
A less-reactive artery is a sign of vascular damage and an early feature of atherosclerosis, the disease process that underlies heart disease and stroke. The researchers also used ultrasound to measure the thickness of inner layers in the wall of the carotid arteries, which are in the neck and supply blood to the brain. This measure is a well-established, noninvasive way to assess plaque build-up in the arteries and monitor its progression.
The children hadn't entered puberty, but their vascular test results "matched those of a 45-year-old adult who had been smoking for more than 10 years," Woo said. "Compared to normal-weight children, by adulthood they are three to five times more likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke before age 65."