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Risk Factors for Heart Disease Present in Childhood

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For nearly 30 years, Reginald Stallings has been taking part in a heart study in Bogalusa, Louisiana. He learned early on he was at risk.

Reginald Stallings/ Heart Study Patient: "I had high cholesterol."

Two new studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggest risk factors can be detected early in life, and children who have those risk factors will likely have early signs of heart disease by the time they turn 40.

Dr. Gerald Berenson/ Heart Disease Researcher: "The risk factors we see in childhood track, or they're predictive of what they'll be in adulthood.

In one study, researchers from Tulane University tracked nearly 500 children and found elevated ldl cholesterol-- the so-called bad cholesterol-- or excess body weight, predicted thickening of the carotid artery in the neck, a precursor to a stroke or heart attack.

Dr. Gerald Berenson: "We're looking at early changes in the vascular system. We may be looking at people 20 or 30 years before they have those events, but we know that they're, let's say 'percolating,' in childhood."

The second study, from Finland, looked at more than 2,000 adults and found carotid artery thickening was also linked to childhood smoking or high blood pressure.

The take home message is simple. Risk factors for heart disease begin early in childhood and so should steps toward prevention.

Dr. Gerald Berenson: "Parents themselves and children ought to undergo healthy lifestyles. Do not become fat. No obesity. No smoking, absolutely. Alcohol only in moderation. Consistent exercise, daily if possible."

Advice that Reginald Stallings has followed to keep his heart healthy.

Screening for obesity, smoking and high blood pressure is easy to do at any age and can have big health benefits.

As to whether teenagers should be screened for high cholesterol, right now it's generally not done unless there's a family history of early heart disease. But as we learn more about heart disease, some say it's time we reconsider when is the right age to start testing.

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