The results of a major study on cholesterol and children found that approximately 1 in 3 primary school kids in the U.S. may already have borderline-high or high cholesterol.
The study of more than 12,000 9- to 11-year-olds, found that 30% of those tested had "borderline" or "abnormal" levels of cholesterol.
"It's a problem that's under diagnosed," said study author Thomas Seery, a pediatric cardiologist at Texas Children's Hospital and assistant professor at the Baylor College of Medicine, both in Houston.
While children with high or borderline-high cholesterol may not be exhibiting any obvious symptoms, researchers say that arteries could already be starting to harden and narrow, setting them up for heart disease or stroke later in life.
The study is one of the largest ever conducted that looks at total cholesterol data in a broad cross-section of healthy children.
Seery and his colleagues searched the medical records of 12,700 children, ages 9 to 11 years old that received cholesterol screenings as part of their routine physical. The scientists were especially interested in the levels of HDL ("good" cholesterol), LDL ("bad" cholesterol), and the amount of triglycerides in the blood. Triglycerides are a type of fat (lipid) found in the blood and used to provide energy to the body. High triglycerides are linked to a greater risk of heart disease.
About 37 percent of the sample had borderline-high or high cholesterol. Among the kids with worrisome indicators, boys were more likely to have high total cholesterol numbers and higher levels of LDL cholesterol than the girls.
Girls with worrisome markers were more likely to have lower levels of HDL cholesterol- the type of cholesterol that helps protect against heart disease.
The researchers found that Hispanic children were more likely to have high levels of triglycerides and low levels of HDL cholesterol.
Seery believes that early intervention with children who have high cholesterol may help them become healthier adults.
"If we can fix this problem earlier," Seery says, "and work toward reducing those levels of cholesterol — therefore reducing lifetime exposure to high cholesterol — we can work toward reducing the incidence of cardiovascular disease as an adult."
The findings, Seery says, offer further support for the guidelines the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute issued in 2011, calling for cholesterol screening for all children between ages 9 and 11, and again between ages 17 and 21.
Some physicians don't believe in screening children for cholesterol, saying they are concerned that children will be given medications that they don't need.
Seery says that only a small percentage of children would require medication, primarily those who have high cholesterol due to a genetic disorder.
For most children, Seery says, the prescription instead is for the whole family to get "hooked" on a better diet and exercise routine. "We know that diet and regular exercise work."
The study was recently presented at the American College of Cardiology's annual conference in Washington, D.C.