Published: Oct. 1, 2006
Updated: Aug. 11, 2010
High levels of "bad" cholesterol, and low levels of the "good" kind. High blood pressure. Insulin resistance, which means sugars in the blood aren't being metabolized efficiently.
These risk factors for serious disease such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes -- typically thought of as "lifestyle" diseases and associated with middle-aged and older adults -- are now rampant in the U.S. But what's especially frightening is that they're also increasingly being seen in children, some of them as young as five years old.
The reason is obesity, which has reached epidemic proportions among today's children. Currently, the U.S. government estimates that 30 percent of the nation's kids are overweight or on their way to being too heavy. And if a recent statewide assessment of Arkansas students -- the largest such study ever -- is any indication, that figure could actually be as high as 40 percent, as it was in Arkansas.
As a result -- if some fundamental changes aren't made -- many of them could face less healthy, shorter lives.
"The growing incidence of obesity among our nation's youth is very disturbing," says former Duke pediatrician Jennifer Cheng, MD. "Children who are obese are more prone to not only have poor self-esteem and social problems, but are much more likely to have health problems as adults."
Howard J. Eisenson, MD, director of the Duke Diet and Fitness Center, agrees. "Researchers are predicting that, instead of seeing heart disease happening in their 50s and 60s, our kids might begin getting it in their 20s and 30s," Eisenson says. "And a staggering number of children are developing type 2 diabetes, which was previously considered an adult disease related to weight."
In the face of the growing national crisis of childhood obesity, diabetes, and related health issues, Duke cardiologist Michael Blazing, MD, says it would be a good idea to begin regular cholesterol screening much earlier than the typically recommended 18 years of age, in order to help prevent dangerous and costly medical problems later in life. But healthy habits are even more important than early screenings.
"You really start on a lifetime of better health by having a good healthy lifestyle," Blazing says. "And that means watching how much you eat and what you eat. It's never too early to start."
Yet, in many families, French fries and soft drinks are routinely given to children as young as two years of age. As a result, many toddlers are consuming foods that are high in fat, sugar, and salt instead of eating a balanced diet rich in fruits and vegetables.
There are some recent encouraging signs in the campaign against childhood obesity, according to Cheng. She points to some fast-food chains that now offer low-fat milk as an alternative to soft drinks on children's menus, and to the addition of more salad options at fast-food restaurants.
"I think we're seeing a positive trend," she says. "The chain restaurants are headed in the right direction, but they still have a long way to go."
To win the war against childhood obesity, Cheng says that families need to make healthier diets and more exercise a priority -- and encourage school and health officials to do the same. "Up to 80 percent of obese children and adolescents remain obese as adults," Cheng says. "And the longer you wait to correct the problem, the worse the odds are.
"So to give your child the best chance for a healthy life, it's never too soon to start helping them manage their weight with healthier food choices and more physical activity."
Got a youngster you want to help stay at a healthful weight? Here are a few tips: