"People know that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of Americans, but they don't fully realize that it's a silent process that begins in childhood," says lead author Christine L. Williams, M.D., M.P.H., immediate past chair of the American Heart Association's Committee on Atherosclerosis, Hypertension, and Obesity in the Young.
Initiating healthful lifestyle "training" in childhood can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease in both the individual child and the population at large, write the authors.
The "super-sizing" of America's children
Rates of obesity have doubled among U.S. young people during the past two decades, with the highest rates among African-American and Latino youth.
Obese children experience the same risk factors associated with heart disease in adults such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and type 2 diabetes (once so uncommon in children it was known as "adult-onset" diabetes). They also develop the beginnings of atherosclerotic lesions, called fatty streaks. These deposits have been found in the body's central artery, called the aorta, as early as age 3, and in the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart, after age 10.
"We must act now or these overweight young people could be at risk of developing heart disease at an earlier age than their parents' generation has," says Williams, director of the Children's Cardiovascular Health Center at Columbia University's Babies and Children's Hospital in New York City.