February is American Heart Month. Fortunately, most children are not at risk for the same heart-related problems (Cardiovascular Disease, or CVD) that adults face, but that doesn’t mean that those problems can be completely disregarded in children. In fact, it turns out that a lot of the problems we may face in later years have their roots in what we did when we were young. It is never too late (or too early) to make some changes toward living a healthier lifestyle.
Know the Risks
Heart disease continues to be the number one cause of death in the United States. Most people are aware of certain risk factors, such as having an elevated cholesterol level, which increases the risk for heart attacks and strokes. Newer research has discovered that some of those changes in our blood vessels that lead to events like a heart attack can actually start as early as childhood. It is important to identify known risk factors so that the progression to CVD can be halted or even reversed and cholesterol screening is a big part of that prevention process. Unlike in years past, pediatricians now play a role in identifying some of those risk factors.
Cholesterol Screening Guidelines
Cholesterol screening begins by asking about the family history. If there is a history of CVD in family members, it is important to discuss this with your child’s physician – especially if someone in your family had heart problems early in life (in their 40s or even earlier). Some types of cholesterol disorders can actually be inherited and should be screened for in childhood. Other things your child’s doctor will look at include their weight compared to their height and age – being overweight is another risk factor for elevated cholesterol levels.
The guidelines for cholesterol screening in childhood have recently changed and have been endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. One major change is the recommendation for universal cholesterol screening for children at ages 9-11 and 17-21. This is because some people, including children, can have elevated cholesterol levels even if they are otherwise healthy and do not have a family history of high cholesterol.
Treatment for High Cholesterol
If a child (or anyone else) has been found to have an elevated cholesterol level, the first step in treatment involves lifestyle modification. Making dietary changes and getting more exercise is often all that needs to be done. Occasionally, some children will require medications to help lower their cholesterol level.
As mentioned, some of those changes in the vessels caused by elevated cholesterol (what we refer to as atherosclerosis) are reversible if they are caught early enough. Talk to your child’s doctor about cholesterol screening as part of American Heart Month!