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January 22, 2010

Above 20% of U.S. teens have abnormal cholesterol

At least one out of every five U.S. teenagers has abnormal cholesterol levels, boosting the risk of heart disease, federal health officials reported Thursday.

A national survey of blood cholesterol levels in American teenagers found that more than 20% of those ages 12 to 19 had at least one abnormal blood fat level and the rate jumped to 43% among those adolescents who are obese.

Although previous studies had indicated the abnormal cholesterol levels -- once a condition thought isolated to people who were middle-aged and elderly -- had become a problem among the young, the new data documents the problem on a national level.

The findings provide new evidence underscoring the health threat posed by the nation's obesity epidemic. Although the latest government data suggest the epidemic might be leveling off, at least one-third of youths are overweight or obese and the heaviest boys continue to get heavier.

Previous studies have found that the obesity epidemic has been accompanied by an increase in a variety of health problems in youths once found only in adults, including high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States.

"The current epidemic of childhood obesity makes this a matter of significant and urgent concern," said Ashleigh May, an epidemic intelligence service officer in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention division for heart disease and stroke prevention, who led the analysis.

The findings come as first lady Michelle Obama has announced plans to help lead the nation's efforts to reduce childhood obesity. During a speech Wednesday to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Obama called for better eating habits, improved nutrition and more physical activity.

In the new study, published in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, researchers analyzed data collected from 3,125 youths by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which is conducted every two years to gather a variety of health information.

The analysis, from data collected in surveys conducted between 1999 and 2006, found that 20.3% had abnormal "blood lipid" levels, which includes high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the so-called "bad cholesterol," low levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL), which is known as the "good cholesterol" and high levels of triglycerides, which can also clog arteries.

The percentage of teens having an abnormal blood lipid level varied by weight, ranging from 14.2% of those whose weight was normal to 22.3% among those who were overweight and 42.9% among those who were obese, the researchers reported.

The findings support a 2008 recommendation by the American Academy of Pediatrics that children and adolescents get blood tests to see whether they need to be treated for abnormal lipid levels if they are at risk for heart disease because of a family history of high blood cholesterol, early heart disease or if they are at risk because they smoke, have high blood pressure or diabetes, or are overweight.

The analysis showed that about a third of youths would be eligible for screening based on their weight alone, and about a fifth would be eligible for at least counseling to try to reduce their risk. The first step would be to try to improve diets, increase exercise and reduce weight before drug therapy was considered, May said.

The analysis found that boys were more likely than girls to have an abnormal blood test, with 24% of males having an abnormal reading compared with 16 percent of girls. Fourteen- and 15-yr-olds and 18 and 19-yr-olds were more likely to have low levels of the HDL "good" cholesterol levels than 12- and 13-year-olds. White teens were more likely to have low HDL levels and high triglycerides, compared with black teens.
Report from Washington Post

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