Nov. 11, 2008 (New Orleans) -- At a time when obesity among children has reached epidemic levels, researchers report that the neck arteries of obese children and teens may have as much plaque buildup as 40-somethings.
The blood vessels of obese youngsters age more rapidly than those of their normal-weight counterparts -- raising their risk of developing heart disease at an earlier age, says Geetha Raghuveer, MD, a cardiologist at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City.
"As the saying goes, 'you're as old as your arteries,'" she tells WebMD. "The state of the blood vessels' arteries is more important than your chronological age when it comes to the development of heart disease and stroke."
The research was presented at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2008.
Obese Kids Have Advanced Vascular Ages
Raghuveer and colleagues studied 70 children and teens aged 6 to 19. They were all at high risk for future heart problems because they had high cholesterol levels and/or were obese, or because they had inherited a form of high cholesterol known as familial hypercholesterolemia.
A high-tech ultrasound scan was used to measure the thickness of the inner walls of the carotid arteries that supply blood to the brain. Increasing carotid artery intima-media thickness, or CIMT, indicates a buildup of plaque in the arteries that can lead to heart attacks and strokes.
The children's average CIMT was 0.45 millimeters, which is typical of adults in their mid-40s. Some had CIMT readings as high as 0.75 millimeters.
"About 75% of the children had advanced vascular ages," says Raghuveer, referring to the age at which the level of thickening would be normal for their chronological age.
Children with high triglyceride (blood fat) levels and who were obese were most likely to have advanced vascular ages.
Obese Children With Enlarged Hearts
There is other bad news about the future heart health of obese children, too. Another study showed that obese children are considerably more likely to have enlarged hearts than those of healthy weight.
Australian researchers assessed the size of the left atrium in 991 children aged 5 to 15. The left atrium is the chamber of the heart that receives oxygen-rich blood from the lungs and sends it to the left ventricle. An enlarged left atrium raises the risk of developing and dying of heart disease, says Julian Ayer, MD, of the Children's Hospital at Westmead, Sydney.
Left atrial size was significantly greater in obese children than in overweight or healthy-weight children. And overweight kids had greater left atrial size than the normal-weight youngsters, he says.
Taken together, these and other recent studies "are really beginning to demonstrate that being overweight or obese in childhood is not innocuous," says Stephen Daniels, MD, PhD, chairman of the department of pediatrics at the University of Colorado in Denver. He moderated a news conference to discuss the findings.
"These kids are beginning to show subtle, but worrisome, changes in the hearts and arteries," he tells WebMD.
The good news, Raghuveer says, is that the process can probably be reversed in these children.
"Children don't have as much hardening, or calcification, in their arteries," she explains. "I'm optimistic we can improve the vessel walls and blood flow in adults through lifestyle and pharmaceutical interventions."