We think of high cholesterol as the punishing conclusion of many years of bad habits. Unfortunately, however, even young children can have high cholesterol.
In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children be screened for high cholesterol between 9 and 11 years old and again between the ages of 17 – 21. And if children have risk factors, such as obesity, a family history of high cholesterol and/or early heart disease, their first cholesterol test should be done after 2 years old, but no later than 10 years old, according to the AAP.
Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in your blood and made by the liver. It is actually an important component of the body– helping form the walls of cells and organs and it makes up parts of our brain and nervous system. There are two types of cholesterol: “bad” or LDL and “good” or HDL.
Good cholesterol helps carry the bad cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where the body can get rid of it. For this reason, HDL cholesterol has been found to be protective for your heart and brain.
When bad cholesterol levels are high, on the other hand, it can form a thick, hard deposit in your arteries (called plaque) that can lead to early heart disease, heart attack or stroke. An estimated seven percent of all children in the U.S. have an unacceptably high cholesterol level, meaning an alarming number of children are at risk for “adult-type” medical conditions well before they reach adulthood.
High cholesterol levels can be caused by a variety of factors, but the most common are diet, family history, lack of exercise and obesity.
If a child has high cholesterol, I like to suggest that the whole family makes easy, but significant lifestyle changes, such as:
- Making it a daily habit to get at least 20-30 minutes of physical activity. You can take the whole family on a walk after dinner, play your favorite team sport or help wash the car on the weekend to get everyone moving. Exercise can improve your health/cholesterol by raising your HDL (or good) cholesterol.
- Make healthy food choices. Try to incorporate five servings of fruits and vegetables per day into your diet. Choose leaner cuts of meat, drink low-fat dairy, and use unsaturated fat, rather than trans fats (found in foods like butter and fried foods), when cooking such as olive oil or canola oils. And try fat-free cooking techniques, like baking, broiling or grilling foods.
- Adding foods high in fiber (such as apples, pears, oatmeal, berries with seeds) and Omega-3 Fatty Acids (such as salmon, flax seeds, walnuts) to your diet to help lower the bad cholesterol and boost the good cholesterol. Your pediatrician can help recommend supplements that are appropriate for your child.
While there are medications on the market that can be used to lower cholesterol in children, I like to start with making lifestyle adjustments first and see what progress we can make. If a child’s cholesterol level remains high, your pediatrician can discuss next steps with you.
For a little kid, high cholesterol can lead to big problems. So it’s important that families work together to lower the bad, boost the good and keep kids healthy.