Got high cholesterol? Your children might have it, too

January 25, 2018 Providence Health Team

Many adults are conscious of the fact their cholesterol count is high and needs to be managed. They watch what they eat and control their cholesterol level through medication every day. But all the while, they don’t consider that their kids may have high cholesterol, too.

Surprising? It shouldn’t be. Childhood obesity is rising dramatically in the United States and so are children’s cholesterol levels.

High cholesterol levels are a major contributor to heart disease and stroke. Cholesterol leads to the buildup of plaque on the walls of the arteries, eventually narrowing them. The lessened blood flow, in turn, leads to heart problems and stroke. When this chain of events is set in motion at an early age, the risk of heart disease greatly increases as the child gets older.

What’s causing this epidemic of childhood obesity and high cholesterol levels?

To put it simply, poor eating and lifestyle habits are the same culprits that cause obesity and high cholesterol regardless of age. Too many fast food dinners, processed foods, refined sugars, white bread, and fatty snacks hit kids just as hard as grownups. Also, heredity is a factor: If relatives have high cholesterol, children are more likely to develop high cholesterol levels, too. Couple poor eating and lifestyle habits with the fact that kids are overall less active than in previous generations, and it's not a stretch to think that less efficient burning of calories can lead to higher levels of cholesterol.

We tend to think of children as inherently healthy, but if we are starting them off with poor eating and exercise habits, they may end up dealing with health problems for the rest of their lives.

This is why pediatricians recommend that all children get cholesterol (lipid) panels done to establish a baseline for health.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children should be screened once between ages 9 and 11 and again between ages 17 and 21.

The lipid panel is recorded by means of a simple blood test.  These are usually done fasting (nothing to eat or drink except water for 12 hours before the test). If the child is otherwise healthy with no risk factors, a non-fasting test can be used.

How Is High Cholesterol in Children Treated?

For kids who are overweight and who have a high blood-fat level or low level of "good" HDL cholesterol, weight management is the first priority. These lifestyle changes-- losing weight, maintain a healthy diet, and exercising regularly – can be done as a family and can benefit all members.

Eat healthier. Choose foods low in fat, cholesterol and sugar. The amount of total fat a child consumes should be 30 percent or less of daily total calorie intake. Saturated fats should be kept to less than 10 percent of daily total calorie intake, and trans fats should be avoided altogether. Read labels and avoid processed foods that contain these unhealthy ingredients.

Select a variety of nourishing foods, especially vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables, so your child can get all the nutrients he or she needs. Finally, include more fiber in the diet. Soluble fiber reduces some cholesterol levels and insoluble fiber is linked to a decreased in cardiovascular disease.

Exercise regularly. Regular aerobic exercise such as running, swimming, bicycling, and hiking can help raise HDL levels ("good" cholesterol) and lower the risk for cardiovascular disease. Be more active throughout the day, minimizing time spent in front of TVs, video games, phones, and computers.

A child's cholesterol level should be retested and monitored after dietary changes are made. If diet and exercise alone does not improve the levels, a child may need to take cholesterol-lowering medications such as statins.

Problems associated with high cholesterol don't necessarily show up for years, so it’s important to screen kids early. Identifying high cholesterol now gives you and your doctor a chance to make the changes necessary to lower your child's risk of developing heart disease later.

Talk to your health care provider if you have concerns about cholesterol. You can find a Providence provider near you in our multistate directory.

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