You might think of cholesterol as a concern of the middle-aged but a new study finds that roughly one-third of American middle-schoolers -- ages 9-11 -- have borderline or high cholesterol, potentially placing them at greater risk for future cardiovascular disease.
A separate study finds that excessive TV watching is more likely to lead to uncontrolled snacking than time spent on the computer or playing video games.
In one of the largest studies of its kind, researchers examined the medical records of 12,712 children who had screening for cholesterol levels at the Texas Children's Pediatrics Associates clinics, the nation's largest pediatric primary care organization.
Of these, 4,709, or 30%, had borderline or elevated total cholesterol as defined by the National Cholesterol Education Program.
"The sheer number of kids with abnormal lipid profiles provides further evidence that this is a population that needs attention and could potentially benefit from treatment," said Thomas Seery, M.D., pediatric cardiologist at Texas Children's Hospital. "But we can only intervene if we diagnose the problem."
While cardiovascular disease in children is rare, the presence of certain risk factors in childhood can increase the chances of developing heart disease as an adult. Previous studies have demonstrated that atherosclerosis – a hardening and narrowing of the arteries – can begin in childhood.
"If we can identify and work to lower cholesterol in children, we can potentially make a positive impact by stalling vascular changes and reducing the chances of future disease," Seery said.
He said that this is especially important amid the growing obesity epidemic. The study is being presented at the American College of Cardiology's 63rd Annual Scientific Session.
Blame the TV
Another study found that middle school kids who park themselves in front of the TV for two hours or more each day are more likely to consume junk food and have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, even compared to those who spend an equal amount of time on the computer or playing video games.
"While too much of both types of screen time encourages sedentary behavior, our study suggests high TV time in particular is associated with poorer food choices and increased cardiovascular risk," said Elizabeth Jackson, M.D., a University of Michigan professor.
In fact, sixth-graders who reported watching between two and six hours of TV a day were more likely to have higher body mass index, elevated systolic and diastolic blood pressure and slower recovery heart rate compared with those reporting low screen time or kids who had comparable computer/video game use.
This is the first time researchers have looked at the impact of different kinds of screen time kids get in relation to snacking habits and physiological measures associated with heart health, according to the authors.
The study included 1,003 sixth-graders from 24 middle schools participating in Project Healthy Schools across five diverse communities in Southeast Michigan.
The research found that kids who spent more time in front of a screen – regardless of the type – snack more frequently and are more likely to choose less healthy snacks. High TV viewers and computer/video game users both reported eating roughly 3.5 snacks a day – one full snack more than kids who had minimal exposure to these technologies.
But children who watched two to six hours a day of TV were more likely than the high computer/video game group to eat high-fat foods such as French fries and chips.
Jackson said this is likely because these kids are bombarded by TV commercials that tend to reinforce less healthy foods – often higher in sugar, salt and fats. In addition, kids tend to have free hands while watching TV as opposed to when they are on the computer or playing video games, which provides more opportunity for mindless snacking.