WASHINGTON (Reuters) - An obese child's arteries may be just as clogged as the arteries of someone who is middle-aged, researchers said on Tuesday.
This buildup of fatty plaque means the children may risk heart attack or stroke as early as age 30, according to Dr. Geetha Raghuveer of the University of Missouri Kansas City School of Medicine and Children's Mercy Hospital.
"This is an alarming finding," Raghuveer, who led the study presented at an American Heart Association meeting in New Orleans, said in a telephone interview.
Her team used ultrasound to measure the thickness of the inner walls of neck arteries of 70 mostly obese children with an average age of 13, and found that the state of their arteries was more typical of a 45 year old.
Obesity among children is rising in many places worldwide. This is the latest study to show that obesity can begin to lay the groundwork for cardiovascular disease at a very young age.
The children in the study had high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), known as "bad cholesterol," low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), known as the "good cholesterol," or elevated levels of a type of fat found in the blood called triglycerides. Forty of the children were obese.
The study focused on the thickness of the inner lining of the carotid arteries, which are two large blood vessels in the neck that supply the brain with blood.
"We wanted to gauge their vascular age," said Raghuveer, referring to the age at which the level of arterial thickening would be normal.
In these children, their "vascular age" generally was three decades older than their chronological age, she said.
Obesity and high triglyceride levels together were closely associated with an advanced vascular age, Raghuveer added, indicating that this combination should alert doctors that a child may be at high risk of developing heart disease.
The build-up of plaque can narrow arteries and limit the flow of blood, leading to a heart attack or stroke. Plaque is made of fat, calcium and other stuff in the blood, and its build-up in arteries is called atherosclerosis.
Raghuveer said she is hopeful that the artery build-up can be reduced if the children make important lifestyle changes -- losing weight and exercising more -- and in some cases take medications like cholesterol-lowering statins.
The American Academy of Pediatrics in July said some children as young as age 8 should be treated with statins if they have certain cholesterol levels.
Editing by Maggie Fox and Cynthia Osterman