U.S. Kids Get Low Scores in Heart Health

A new analysis of U.S. federal data provides a dismal picture of children's cardiovascular health that suggests the current generation of teenagers could be at risk of increased heart disease.

The study, which examined children between 12 and 19 years old in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that the adolescents performed poorly overall on a set of seven criteria set by the American Heart Association (AHA) for ideal cardiovascular health.

Diet in particular was a problem, with not one of the 5,450 children randomly selected for the survey from the US population meeting the standards for diet. Taking out the diet measure, still just 16.4 percent of boys and 11.3 percent of girls were rated ideal on all of the other six criteria, which included smoking, exercise, weight, cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar.

The findings, presented Wednesday at the annual scientific meeting of the heart association in Orlando, Fla., come amid continuing concern about the implications of obesity and other factors on the health of children. Just last week, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute called for all children between nine and 11 years old to get a cholesterol test in an effort to detect heart risk at an early age.

Cholesterol and especially blood-sugar levels can be naturally elevated during puberty and level out in adulthood, and how that phenomenon might affect the results is not fully understood. But researchers note that the ideal benchmarks in the seven categories have been shown to be associated with reduced risk of heart disease.

The seven criteria for ideal cardiovascular health are the backbone of a public health initiative recently launched by the heart association. The goal is to get 20 percent of all American adults within optimal range on all seven measures.

The focus on children reflects growing awareness that while heart attacks and other consequences of cardiovascular disease typically strike later in life, the biological processes that lead to them begin in childhood.

Researchers found that kids performed best on blood pressure, with more than 90 percent in the ideal range, and in smoking, where about 80 percent of those 17 and under had never smoked.
For exercise, 50 percent of boys and 60 percent of girls did not regularly exercise for more than 60 minutes a day, the optimal target. Between 10 percent and 20 percent reported getting no exercise. About 30 percent to 45 percent had less-than-ideal cholesterol, while about one-third were either overweight or obese.

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