Researchers found that overweight and obese 8-year-olds were seven-times more likely than their thinner peers to have multiple heart disease risk factors at the age of 15. These risks included high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol levels and elevations in blood sugar and insulin, a blood-sugar-regulating hormone.
Along with obesity, all of these problems are components of metabolic syndrome, which in turn raises the long-term risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
The findings, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, add to evidence of the serious health consequences of childhood obesity.
Past studies have found that even teenagers and young adults can show signs of disease in their heart arteries if they are obese or have type 2 diabetes.
The current results also suggest that doctors need only measure children’s weight and height, and not their waistlines, to get a good picture of their future heart risks. Childhood body mass index (BMI) — a measure of weight in relation to height — was more strongly related to future cardiac risk factors than waist circumference was.
This is in contrast to the case with adults, where waist size seems particularly telling when it comes to heart health. Even among men and women with a normal BMI, those who carry their fat around the middle seem to have elevated risks of metabolic syndrome and heart disease.
Children are not adults, however, and you don’t see thin children with large waistlines, explained lead study author Dr. Sarah P. Garnett, of the Children’s Hospital at Westmead in Australia.
The findings are based on 172 children who had their BMI and waist size measured at the age of 8, and were assessed for various heart disease risk factors at age 15. Roughly 10 percent were found to have three or more such risk factors; this risk or "clustering" was far more likely in teens who had been overweight or obese as children.
"The risk factor clustering observed in adolescents is likely to persist over time and will progress clinically," Garnett told Reuters Health. The findings underscore the need to prevent obesity early on, according to the researcher.
"The consequences of childhood obesity are devastating," she said.
SOURCE: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, September 2007.