Obese children appear to develop risks for heart disease usually not seen until adulthood - putting their health in jeopardy as they age, British researchers report.
These risk factors - including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high blood sugar levels and thickening of the heart muscle - can boost heart disease risk by up to 40%, the study authors noted.
"We really need to take action on childhood obesity from as young an age as possible," said lead researcher Claire Friedemann, of the department of primary care health sciences at Oxford University. "We have shown that obesity is not just about appearance but could have a long-term effect on the health of the child. By not fully tackling the problem, we could lose the progress that has been made in treating heart disease in recent years."
Dr Gregg Fonarow, professor of cardiology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and spokesman for the American Heart Association, added that obesity is associated with many cardiovascular risk factors and, among adults, contributes to diabetes, premature cardiovascular disease and death.
"These findings suggest that being obese in childhood significantly worsens cardiovascular risk factors and the adverse health consequences may be even greater than previously expected," he said. "Substantial global efforts are needed to address childhood obesity."
The report was published in the issue of the journal BMJ.
How the study was done
For the study, Friedemann's team analysed 63 studies that measured weight and risk for cardiovascular disease in children and teens between 5 and 15 years old. In all, more than 49 000 children were included in these studies, which took place in "highly developed countries" and were published between 2000 and 2011.
This type of study, known as a meta-analysis, is used to find common threads running through several studies in hopes of being able to make a stronger argument for an overall finding. Problems with this type of analysis arise from the weakness of any one of the studies included and the difficulty of combining disparate data.
In their analysis, the researchers found that, compared to normal-weight children, obese children had significantly higher blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels as well as thicker heart muscles.
These risk factors can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke by 30% to 40% when these children reach adulthood, the researchers warned.
Overweight children also had higher blood pressure, but to a lesser extent than obese children.
"Although the size of the effect that obesity has on the health of children's hearts is worrying, the good news is that they can all be improved with a healthy diet and exercise," Friedemann said. "These habits are much easier to begin in childhood and carry through to adulthood."
'Health effect on children is real'
Dr David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center in New Haven, Conn, said "there was a time such news would have been shocking, but this study tells us what we already knew: widespread obesity imperils our children's futures. How much more data do we really need before we commit to doing everything in our power to fix that?"
Dr Nancy Dobrolet, a paediatric cardiologist at Miami Children's Hospital who sees obese children daily in her practise, said that "these findings are real and the health effects on children are real."
"I see this in my clinic every day," she said. "Every day, patients are being referred for hypertension and high cholesterol and the overwhelming majority of those patients are obese."
Most of these children don't exercise at all, said Dobrolet, who doesn't put her patients on blood pressure or cholesterol-lowering drugs.
"The first treatment is to change your diet and exercise," she said.
Combat childhood obesity
To find out more about childhood obesity, visit the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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