High cholesterol seems like a problem just for grown-ups—but it's not!

By Sally Kuzemchak
January 12, 2016
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Doctor examining young girl
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If your child is between the ages of 9-11, they may be screened at their well-check visit for what seems like a very grown-up problem: High cholesterol.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children be screened for high cholesterol at least once between the ages of 9-11 (and then again in their later teen years). It used to be that kids were only tested if they had risk factors associated with heart disease such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or obesity—or had an unknown family history (in the case of adoption) or a family history of early heart disease or stroke (considered age 55 or earlier in men, 65 or earlier in women).

Worries about the current rates of childhood obesity fueled the change in testing guidelines, since obesity is a major risk factor for high cholesterol. It's now believed that the roots of heart disease can take hold during childhood. Kids with high cholesterol are more likely to become adults with it—and that can lead to plaque build-up in the arteries over time and increase the chances for heart disease. Other factors that can boost levels in kids include having diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure, an underactive thyroid, and simply a genetic predisposition to elevated levels. Screening all children means doctors can catch those with high levels early and identify those at risk.

So what happens if your child's test comes back high? Lifestyle changes are the first line of defense (very few children need medication to control it). The cornerstones of a diet for healthy levels are:

  • Eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Getting lots of fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • Choosing lean protein sources like lean meats and beans and low-fat dairy
  • Swapping saturated fats (like butter and lard) for unsaturated (like olive oil and avocados)
  • Avoiding trans fats (listed on the label as hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oils)

Making sure kids get regular exercise is also critical, since physical activity works to boost levels of HDL ("good" cholesterol) and may help lower body weight in kids with obesity, which will help reduce LDL ("bad" cholesterol). Most importantly, these diet and exercise changes should be things the whole family does—not just the child.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, and Instagram. She collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.