Teens Showing Ominous Signs of Cardiovascular Trouble to Come

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More than 60 percent of overweight teens, and a third of normal-weight teens, already show at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

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It is clear that the adolescent population of the United States is growing heavier. Overweight and obesity have reached epidemic proportions with an estimated 34 percent of US adolescents ages 12-19 measuring over the 85 percentile for weight between 2009-2010.

The health risks of excessive weight are well known in the adult population. They include cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, joint disease, mental health problems and many others. Researchers are turning their attention to the potential problems which might develop in overweight or obese adolescents and how these may affect their adult health.

The heavier the teen, the more abnormal their cardiovascular risk profile, with 49 percent of the overweight and 61 percent of the obese adolescents showing one or more risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Even though the symptoms of cardiovascular disease such as chest pain, shortness of breath, heart attacks and strokes usually don't occur until adulthood, physical changes that lead to adult heart disease may begin in childhood and adolescence and persist into the adult years.

A recent study looked at the prevalence of risk factors for adult cardiovascular disease in the teenage population. The researchers evaluated health data on 3383 adolescents, ages 12-19, obtained between 1999 and 2008. They looked at the prevalence of several known risk factors for adult cardiac disease: high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, abnormal cholesterol/lipids, and diabetes.

Their findings were concerning. They found that 37 percent of normal weight teens had at least one cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factor. Overweight/obese teens were at higher risk than their normal weight peers for having CVD risk factors. In fact, the heavier the teen, the more abnormal their cardiovascular risk profile: 49 percent of the overweight and 61 percent percent of the obese adolescents showing one or more risk factors for CVD.

Among the total study group, 14 percent were positive for pre-hypertension or hypertension and 22 percent were positive for borderline high/high LDL cholesterol. These percentages did not change significantly between 1990 and 2008. Both conditions are potential precursors for symptomatic heart disease. However, the prevalence of prediabetes/diabetes among the adolescents increased from nine percent at the beginning of the study period to a very concerning 23 percent at the end. In addition to heart disease, diabetes can lead to complications in virtually every organ-system in the body.

The researchers concluded that "a large proportion of adolescents, regardless of weight status would benefit from intervention... and programs that promote overall healthy life style..." They note both prevention and/or reduction of early CVD may be possible with lifestyle changes.

This study, published in the May issue of Pediatrics, adds to the increasingly bleak picture emerging regarding the health trends among US adolescents. It clearly supports the need for the development of effective educational as well as lifestyle and medical interventions to support the future health of adolescent and adult populations.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

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Esther Entin, M.D., is a pediatrician and clinical associate professor of Family Medicine at Brown University's Warren Alpert School of Medicine. She writes for TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com.

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