The study, presented at the American Heart Association’s Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention annual conference, in Palm Harbor, Fla., was carried out using data on 3,098 children aged 3 to 6 participating in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The research team analyzed children’s blood samples for HDL (“good”) cholesterol, C-reactive protein (a biochemical associated with inflammation) and total cholesterol, but not for LDL (“bad”) cholesterol or other blood fats.
The results showed that youngsters with high body mass indices (BMIs) – a measure comparing weight to height – and large midsections had a greater risk of having high levels of C-reactive protein and lower levels of HDL cholesterol (both warning signs for heart disease) than normal-weight children.
Some 24 percent of American children aged two to five are overweight, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and an additional 12 percent are obese. Among children six to 11, 33 percent are overweight, and another 17 percent are obese.
The study’s scientists warned that children’s BMI and waist size should be checked regularly, and that, if an increase is noted, there should be an intervention in terms of better nutrition and greater physical activity, but not in terms of cholesterol-lowering medications.
“It’s frightening,” Messiah said. “We are in uncharted territory. We have never had this number of children this heavy so young. We don’t know the cumulative effect of all of these years of having all of your organs – heart, kidneys, liver, pancreas –under stress from being overweight.”
Ronald Krauss, director of atherosclerosis research at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute, said the results didn’t surprise him, because a clear relationship has been established between obesity and elevated LDL cholesterol and C-reactive protein in adults.
“It reinforces how serious it is and how much of an effort it’s going to take to reduce the risk by going back to early childhood,” he said.