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Scary statistics about teens and heart disease that everyone should know

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  May 20, 2012 10:51 AM

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A startling study was released May 21 in the journal Pediatrics. Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) looked at data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) over the past decade. They wanted to know how many adolescents were at risk for future heart disease. They looked at the main risk factors: high blood pressure, high LDL cholesterol, and diabetes. They also looked at how many were overweight or obese.

Here's what they found. Pay attention, because this is really important:

  • One in four adolescents has or almost has diabetes. This is up from one in 10 a decade ago.
  • One in four adolescents has two or more risk factors for heart disease.
  • One in seven has an LDL level that is borderline or high.
  • One in five has a blood pressure that is borderline or high.
  • One in five is obese.
  • One in seven is not yet obese, but overweight. If you add obese and overweight together, it's one in three.
  • Being at a healthy weight doesn't guarantee health -- one in three healthy-weight adolescents has at least one risk factor for heart disease.
Read those numbers again, and let them sink in. They have huge -- devastating -- implications. For an astounding number of our youth, it's not a question of if they will have heart disease -- it's a question of when.

That doesn't mean there's nothing we can do. There are absolutely things we can do, and this study is a call to action if there ever was one. If we start now, and work hard, we can turn this around.

If you are a parent, here's what you must do:
  • Know your child's body mass index (BMI, a calculation based on height and weight), and whether it's healthy. The CDC has a great BMI calculator.
  • Know your child's blood pressure, and whether it's healthy (which depends on age, gender and height -- the National Institutes of Health has tables that can tell you).
  • Talk to your doctor about doing blood tests to check your child's cholesterol (recommended at age 9-11 and again at 17-21) and to look for diabetes (recommended for any overweight or obese child).
  • Get your child moving! Exercise is the best thing for your child's -- and your -- health. Try to get them active (which could just be active play) for an hour every day.
  • Feed your child lots of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains. Every plate should be half fruits and vegetables -- check out for more information on healthy eating.
But this isn't just a parent problem; we all have work to do. The health of our children is the health of our future: if they aren't healthy, nor is our future. To solve this problem, we need to do so many things. We need everyone to have access to low-cost healthy foods. We need more opportunities and safe places to exercise -- and to motivate people to do it. We need to change the Super Size culture. We need restaurants and food manufacturers and advertisers to be more responsible. We need to get the word out and educate everyone about how to be healthier. This is work that is going to take effort from each and every one of us.

Please help. There are lives at stake.
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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