High Cholesterol: Could Your Children Be at Risk?

High cholesterol is often thought of as an adult's health concern. However, research shows that parents may need to start thinking about the cholesterol levels of their children. In fact, it's now believed that coronary artery disease, which is caused by a buildup of cholesterol and plaque in the arteries and leads to heart disease and stroke, begins in childhood.

What's more, researchers from The University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, recommend taking an aggressive approach to lower the cholesterol levels in children to reduce the occurrence of heart disease in the U.S. 

Part of the uptick in the prevalence of high cholesterol may be due to an increased number of children who are overweight or obese—as diets high in fatty foods are known to lead to both health problems. Cholesterol comes from eating foods like egg yolks, meat, poultry, seafood and whole milk dairy products.

There is bad cholesterol—low-density lipoprotein (LDL)—and good cholesterol—high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL clogs arteries and could cause a heart attack or stroke whereas HDL carries cholesterol that helps the body get rid of cholesterol by carrying it away from the arteries.

High Risk Children

Not all children are equally at risk for high cholesterol. According to the Nemours Foundation, parents should be most vigilant if their child has the following risk factors:

  • A diet high in fat;
  • A parent with total cholesterol higher than 240 mg/dL;
  • A parent or grandparent who had a history of heart disease prior to age 55;
  • Obesity, due to a poor diet and lack of exercise;
  • High blood pressure;
  • Smokes; or
  • Has diabetes mellitus.

Because a family history of high cholesterol is so important in determining if a child will have high cholesterol, a study published in the British Medical Journal suggests testing children as young as 15 months to determine if they may be at risk of heart disease when they're older. They found that screening children between the ages of one and nine years old was 88 percent effective in predicting who would be affected by high cholesterol.

Your Child's Cholesterol Levels

If your child is at risk for high cholesterol, you could ask your pediatrician about a cholesterol screening. Screening is simple; your child's doctor will conduct a blood test.

The ranges of total cholesterol for children two to 19 years old, according to the American Heart Association, are:

  • Acceptable: Less than 170 mg/dL
  • Borderline: 170-199 mg/dL
  • High: 200 mg/dL or greater

Children with acceptable cholesterol should be screened every five years. Children with total cholesterols over 170 will undergo more testing.

Rather than start medicine right away, a healthy diet and exercise program should be started. If that does make enough of a difference, your child's doctor may then decide to start medicine.