Kids’ cholesterol down, but docs say obesity persists

Even with cholesterol drop, Children's doc says high blood pressure and obesity still a challenge

AURORA | A recent government report showed a drop in cholesterol among children — a bit of good news in a sea of bad headlines about childhood obesity.

But even as cholesterol fell, childhood obesity remained high, and high blood pressure among kids is on the rise.

Dr. Stephen Daniels

Dr. Stephen Daniels discusses childhood obesity Wednesday afternoon, Aug. 8 at The Children's Hospital. Daniels' work focuses on better understanding the causes of high blood pressure and cholesterol abnormalities in children and adolescents; particularly the role obesity may play in these health issues. (Marla R. Keown/Aurora Sentinel)

That disconnect between the cholesterol study and overall childhood obesity has some experts cautioning that the study isn’t necessarily a sign that kids are getting healthier.

“Cholesterol, especially the bad cholesterol, is really not all about obesity. That’s a common misconception,” said Stephen Daniels, a pediatric cardiologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

Daniels, who specializes in preventative cardiology, said he has seen several patients who are thin, athletic and seemingly in good shape but have high cholesterol. The diagnosis leaves parents shocked, Daniels said, but it’s important to realize that a healthy lifestyle isn’t the only contributor to cholesterol.

“Genetics play a big role, especially with the bad cholesterol,” he said.

The study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention drew data from an intensive national study that interviews people and does blood-cholesterol tests. They focused on more than 16,000 children and adolescents over three periods — 1988-94, 1999-2002 and 2007-10.

During the most recent period studied, 1 in 12 children ages 6 through 19 had high cholesterol. That was down from 1 in 9 during each of the earlier periods — roughly a 28 percent decline.

The average overall cholesterol level fell from 165 to 160. In children, 200 is considered too high.

The study was the first in almost 20 years to show such a decline. Kids’ cholesterol levels also fell between the 1960s and the early 1990s, probably because people were eating less fat.

Experts said the most-recent drop is likely due to a decrease in trans fat.

“That’s my leading theory,” said Dr. Sarah de Ferranti, director of preventive cardiology at Boston Children’s Hospital. She wrote an editorial that accompanies the study.

Daniels said he agrees that a drop in trans fat consumption has helped.

But, even with the drop, childhood obesity is largely unchanged and the average blood pressure among children has climbed, as has the number of kids with high blood pressure.

In the last five years, studies have shown about 17 percent of children are obese, a high number but one that has at least leveled off, Daniels said.

“What we don’t know is whether that’s just a brief stop over before it goes back up again, or are we starting to see a trend in which it could ultimately start to go down,” he said. “I think ultimately we don’t know.”

Childhood obesity also remains a difficult topic for doctors to broach with parents, he said.

Because more children are obese now than in previous generations, obesity seems more normal, he said. And because parents typically compare their child’s weight to other children they know, parents may assume their child is healthy because they appear in better shape than other children.

“It is a hard topic to discuss and part of what’s hard about it is that, unfortunately, we may have a misperception about what’s normal and what’s not normal,” he said.

Parents should have their child’s cholesterol levels tested at least once between the ages of 9 and 11, Daniels said, and it’s important that they monitor a child’s weight.

But even more important is that parents talk to their pediatrician about the child’s weight and focus on the child’s overall health.

“If we can get kids to eat right and be active, the weight takes care of itself,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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