NEW ORLEANS – Obese children as young as 10 had the arteries of 45-year-olds and other heart abnormalities that greatly raise their risk of heart disease, say doctors who used ultrasound tests to take a peek inside.
"As the old saying goes, you're as old as your arteries are," said Dr. Geetha Raghuveer of Children's Hospital in Kansas City, who led one of the studies. "This is a wake-up call."
The studies were reported Tuesday at an American Heart Association conference.
About a third of American children are overweight and one-fifth are obese. Many parents think that "baby fat" will melt away as kids get older. But research increasingly shows that fat kids become fat adults, with higher risks for many health problems.
"Obesity is not benign in children and adolescents," said Dr. Robert Eckel, a former heart association president and cardiologist at the University of Colorado-Denver. It is why the American Academy of Pediatrics recently recommended cholesterol-lowering drugs for some kids, he noted.
Raghuveer wanted to see if early signs of damage could be documented. She and colleagues used painless ultrasound tests to measure the thickness of the wall of a major neck artery in 70 children, ages 10 to 16. Almost all had abnormal cholesterol and many were obese.
No one knows how thick a 10-year-old's artery should be, since they're not regularly checked for signs of heart disease, so researchers used tables for 45-year-olds, who often do get such exams.
The kids' "vascular age" was about 30 years older than their actual age, she found.
A separate study tied childhood obesity to abnormal enlargement of the left atrium, one of the chambers of the heart. Enlargement is a known risk factor for heart disease, stroke and heart rhythm problems.
Julian Ayer, a researcher at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Sydney Australia, did ultrasound exams on 991 seemingly healthy children ages 5 to 15. He saw a clear link between rising weight and size of the left atrium.
A third study by Dr. Walter Abhayaratna of Australian National University in Canberra, Australia, also used ultrasound tests and found impairment in the heart's ability to relax between beats in children who were overweight or obese.
The study involved the first 150 children participating in a larger community-based study.
Earlier research he helped conduct found more rigid arteries in such children — a possible sign of plaque deposits starting to form.
"Even at this young age of 10, you can have children who have got arterial stiffness who are comparable to 30- and 40-year-olds," he said.
Dr. Michael Schloss, a New York University heart disease prevention specialist, said the evidence shows obesity is more than a cosmetic issue for children.
"If you've seen what's on the menu for most school lunches, these findings are no surprise," he said. "The time has come to seriously deal with the issue of childhood obesity and physical inactivity on a governmental and parental level."