Up to one-third of American children, from age 2 through the teenage years, have high cholesterol. American children and adolescents also have higher blood cholesterol levels and higher intakes of saturated fatty acids and cholesterol, than their counterparts in other countries, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. And the American Heart Association reports that young children, even babies, can also have high levels of blood pressure.
Recently the American Heart Association began recommending that doctors start measuring children's blood pressure at age 3, and blood cholesterol at age 5. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends cholesterol tests for children age 2 or older if their parents or grandparents had heart disease or vascular disease before age 55, or if their parents have cholesterol levels of 240 or higher.
"There is overwhelming evidence now that atherosclerosis, or a buildup of plaque in the arteries, starts in childhood, not when you're 50 or 60," says David J. Driscoll, MD, professor of pediatrics and director of the Division of Pediatric Cardiology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. We know this from autopsies performed on children who die of accidental deaths, he notes. Other studies on young soldiers who died in Korea and Vietnam showed that by their early 20s, many already had the beginnings of atherosclerosis. "Some of them with pretty significantly advanced disease."
We also know that there's a correlation between cholesterol and other blood fat levels in children and the degree of fatty streaking or atherosclerosis in their arteries, he said. In fact, children and adolescents with high cholesterol levels are more likely than the general population to have high levels as adults.