High cholesterol is a condition most people wouldn’t think affects children but children can indeed have high levels of cholesterol particularly if they are overweight, obese or have a history of family hypercholesterolemia, an inherited disorder where the body is unable to remove low density lipoprotein (“bad” cholesterol). Laurie Malinowski, APN, MSN, CPNP, a pediatric nurse practitioner for Lurie Children’s Preventive Cardiology Program, says, “A diet high in processed food, sugar and saturated (from animals) fat can cause elevated lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides). Genes can also play a role.”
Guidelines from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommend that children (without risk factors) should be screened for high cholesterol between the ages of 9 and 11. Kids with risk factors like high blood pressure, diabetes or obesity, a family history of early heart attacks should be screened earlier.
“Normal total cholesterol is under 170. Normal triglycerides are under 90. We know that early atherosclerotic changes (like fatty streaks and fibrous plaque that builds up in arteries) begin in childhood and can lead to cardiovascular disease later in life,” says Malinowski.
Cholesterol and triglycerides are types of fat in the blood stream that are necessary for cells in the body to function properly. “Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL-C) or ‘bad’ cholesterol is the kind that can build up in the arteries and can cause heart attacks and strokes,” says Malinowski. “High Density Lipoprotein (HDL-C) or ‘good’ cholesterol helps in lowering LDL by attaching to it and carrying it to the liver where the body can get rid of it.”
Therapeutic lifestyle changes are the first line of treatment for high cholesterol and triglycerides. Modifying the diet is very important. “Children’s diets should be low in sugar but high in vegetables, fruit, whole grains and lean meats,” recommends Malinowski. “Daily physical activity is also very important to heart health. Vigorous physical activity can not only help to lower ‘bad’ cholesterol, it can raise ‘good’ cholesterol, help to lower blood pressure, slow weight gain and decrease the build-up of plaque in the arteries. All of these measures can reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes.”
Maintaining a healthy weight can help to prevent heart disease in the future. The obesity epidemic has led to a significant increase in children with dyslipidemia, elevated cholesterol or fats (lipids) in the blood. When diet and exercise aren’t enough, sometimes, drugs called statins are used to lower cholesterol, particularly in patient with a diagnosis of familial hypercholesterolemia.
Malinowski suggest families follow the Consortium to Lower Obesity in Chicago Children’s (CLOCC) education plan: 5-4-3-2-1-GO! The 5-4-3-2-1-GO! plan includes daily recommendations to keep everyone’s heart healthy:
- 5 servings of fruit and vegetables
- 4 servings of water
- 3 servings of low fat dairy
- 2 hours or less of screen time
- 1 hour or more of physical activity
It all adds up to one healthy kid.
February is National Heart Health Awareness month. Lurie Children’s Preventive Cardiology Program is committed to improving the health of children at risk for heart disease. “We care for children who have cardiac risk factors for heart and vascular disease which may include high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, and a family history of heart attacks and strokes,” says Malinowski. Lurie Children’s Heart Center is the top-ranked pediatric heart center in Illinois and ranked #3 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.