In a new study, researchers show that obese children as young as 8 years old present heart muscle abnormalities indicative of heart disease. The research results were presented at the 2015 American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions.
Childhood obesity is one of the most serious and challenging public health issues of this century. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of 2012, 18% of children between the ages of 6 and 11 and 21% of adolescents ages 12 to 19 are obese, and more than one-third of U.S. children and adolescents are overweight and obese. Childhood obesity often leads to worsening health problems that can last a lifetime, such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, premature heart disease, high cholesterol, and depression.
The research team, led by Dr. Linyuan Jing, compared heart magnetic resonance and body mass index (BMI) values of 20 obese children, including seven teenagers, with 20 children with healthy weight. Childhood obesity was determined using the CDC standard growth charts, and five of adolescents had a BMI over 35. (Although the healthy BMI interval in children varies, for adults it is from 18.5 to 25.) The scientists report that among the obese children, some presented symptoms related to excessive weight, like high blood pressure, asthma and depression.
Imaging test results showed that obesity in the children correlated with 27% higher muscle mass in the left ventricle and 12% more heart muscle thickness — two signs of heart disease. And 40% of the children were considered at high risk, as the abnormalities in heart muscle resulted in defective pumping ability.
Researchers also noted that, because some children were not able to fit in the magnetic resonance machine, the study’s results may underestimate the real effect of obesity on the heart. Signs of heart disease in an obese 8-year-old were especially disconcerting. Said Dr. Jing: “This implies that obese children even younger than 8 years old likely have signs of heart disease, too. This was alarming to us. Understanding the long-term ramifications of this will be critical as we deal with the impact of the pediatric obesity epidemic.”
Poor eating habits, where junk food and sugary drinks account for a large percentage of daily meals, and sedentary lifestyle are usually cited as the main reasons for the growing epidemic.
Researchers hope that this study brings even more awareness to the need to change children’s lifestyle habits. “Parents should be highly motivated to help their children maintain a healthy weight. Ultimately we hope that the effects we see in the hearts of these children are reversible; however, it is possible that there could be permanent damage. This should be further motivation for parents to help children lead a healthy lifestyle,” Dr. Jing stated in a press release.