High Cholesterol Levels in the Young

Source from Everyday Health

By Chris Iliades, MD, Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH

Among the young, high cholesterol is more prominent than many people think. An acceptable cholesterol level for a person between the ages 2 and 19 is less than 170 mg, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), yet statistics show that up to a third of young adults have high cholesterol levels above 200 mg.

What Causes High Cholesterol Levels in Children and Young Adults?

In the past, doctors didn’t worry that much about high cholesterol in younger people, but studies have shown that children and adolescents who have high cholesterol are more likely to develop heart disease as adults. Prior to the new guidelines, the NHLBI already recommended that children as young as age 2 have their cholesterol checked if they have a parent with high cholesterol or a family history of early heart disease.

In an effort to increase awareness of the problem, the NHLBI recently released new guidelines for cholesterol screenings in children. The recommendations, endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), urge for all children between ages 9 and 11 to be screened for heightened levels, as opposed to only those with family history of heart disease or high blood cholesterol.

Possible causes of high cholesterol levels in young people include:

  • Genetics. In most cases, a young person with high cholesterol levels has a parent with high cholesterol.
  • Diet. Young people who are exposed to a high-fat diet — common in junk foods or fast-foods — are at risk for high cholesterol.
  • Obesity. Children and young adults who are overweight are at increased risk.
  • Lack of exercise. Spending too much time playing video games and watching TV instead of getting regular exercise is a risk factor for developing high cholesterol levels.

Treating High Cholesterol Levels in Children and Young Adults

Although medications are used for some young people with high cholesterol levels, the best way to treat this problem is with diet and exercise.

  • Decrease saturated fats and cholesterol. Young people over the age of 2 should not get more than 30 percent of their calories from fat. If you or your child has high cholesterol, work with your doctor or nutritionist to start a low cholesterol, low saturated-fat diet.
  • Increase physical activity. The goal should be 30 minutes of exercise that makes the heart beat faster at least three times per week. Walking, biking, swimming, and team sports are all good examples. Limit time in front of the TV to two hours a day.
  • Medications. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, medications to lower high cholesterol in young people should be considered if they have very high levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is the type of cholesterol that contributes to the blocking of arteries. Other reasons to consider medication are having a parent with early heart disease, having diabetes, or when diet and exercise alone are not working.

Motivating Young People With High Cholesterol Levels

Because most young people with high cholesterol don’t experience any symptoms, it may be hard for them to take the issue seriously. It is important for parents and young adults to know that there is a direct relationship between high cholesterol in young people and the risk of dying years later from a heart attack. Here are some ways to help:

  • Get screened early. Any young person with a family history of high cholesterol or heart disease, or an important risk factor like obesity, should be screened regularly. Knowing the numbers is an important motivating factor.
  • Join a team or learn a new sport. Exercising can be fun and can be a great motivator.
  • Get some help. Changing your lifestyle to include exercise and learning about a new heart-healthy diet can be hard. In addition to working with your doctor, think about getting help from a nutritionist and a fitness expert.
  • Do it as a family. Lifestyle changes like exercise and nutrition are best done as a family. If you are a parent of a child with high cholesterol, you can help your child develop healthy habits for a lifetime by setting a good example.

If you’re a parent of a child with high cholesterol levels, remember it’s easier to adopt healthy habits as second nature when you’re young than to learn them as an adult. If you don’t know your child’s cholesterol levels, ask your doctor about screening.