High Cholesterol: Is Your Child at Risk?
Posted 4/18/2016 by UHBlog
High cholesterol is no longer the sole domain of adults.
“One study found one in five American kids had some kind of abnormal cholesterol, with 13 percent having low ‘good’ cholesterol and eight percent having high ‘bad’ cholesterol,” says pediatrician Douglas Fleck, MD. “High cholesterol in children is on the rise, so we’re more aggressive about screening for it than we were 10 years ago.”
Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in cells that can lead to the build-up of plaque on artery walls and, ultimately, contribute to the development of heart disease and stroke. But not all cholesterol is villainous. HDL – or good cholesterol – carries LDL (the bad cholesterol) to the liver for processing and elimination. And the body requires some cholesterol to balance hormones, maintain brain function, repair damaged cells and perform other protective tasks.
Total cholesterol for patients up to age 21 should be less than 170, with LDL less than 130 and HDL higher than 35. The levels are determined through a simple blood test that, most of the time, doesn’t require fasting.
Pediatricians now check children’s cholesterol levels between ages 9 and 11 and again between ages 17 and 21. More frequent checks may be required for youngsters with abnormal levels. It may be appropriate to test children as young as 2 if:
- There’s a family history of high cholesterol
- A first-degree relative, which is a biological parent or sibling, died before age 55
- A parent has a composite cholesterol level over 240
“If we catch high cholesterol early and kids make therapeutic lifestyle changes that emphasize nutrition and activity, a very small percentage of those children will need medication,” Dr. Fleck says.
According to Dr. Fleck, children are at risk if they:
- Have a family history of high cholesterol or premature death
- Have diabetes, high blood pressure or another high-risk medical condition
- Are overweight, obese or eat a diet high in trans fats
- Are sedentary
- Don’t receive regular medical care
Still, a lifetime of taking statin drugs is by no means inevitable. Dr. Fleck recommends taking these steps to lower your child’s risk of developing high cholesterol:
- Don’t skip well-child appointments with your pediatrician – “Sometimes kids look like a million bucks and you think they’re fine, but their cholesterol can be super high and you have no idea,” Dr. Fleck says, acknowledging an absence of outward symptoms associated with high cholesterol levels.
- Stress a heart-healthy diet from an early age – Keep saturated fats at less than 10 percent of a child’s daily calories, avoid trans-fats and don’t exceed 300 mg a day of cholesterol. This can be accomplished by:
- Limiting or eliminating fast food
- Offering ample fruits and vegetables
- Trading processed white starches for whole grain breads and cereals
- Swapping out high-calorie toppings like butter and sour cream in favor of low-fat yogurt
- Replacing whole-milk dairy products (after age 2) with low-fat milk, cheese and yogurt
- Opting for olive oil, soybean oil or nonstick cooking spray instead of heavy oils
- Get your kids off the couch – Youngsters need to get their hearts pumping for at least 30 minutes on most days, so limit their screen time and inspire them to be active. If your child claims to hate exercise, don’t call it that. Get her to walk the dog or help you with yard work. Tech-minded kids may appreciate a FitBit or Apple watch that makes a game out of tracking physical activity.
Douglas Fleck, MD is a pediatrician at University Hospitals Rainbow Ashtabula Pediatrics. You can request an appointment with Dr. Fleck or any other University Hospitals doctor online.