Just about every adult these days knows that a diet laden with fats and sugar, combined with little or no regular exercise and risky behaviors like smoking is a recipe for major problems including diabetes and heart attacks. But a renowned heart disease researcher says adults need to realize that those same bad habits in children set them up for their own problems years down the road.
The good news: The fix is free. That's because it costs nothing to change kids' diet and exercise routines from harmful to helpful.
'We could probably eliminate 90 percent of heart attacks if we'd make sure our kids were eating right and getting enough exercise from the start, rather than waiting to treat them for diseases that show up decades later as a direct result of years of bad eating habits and a lack of exercise,' says Dr. Henry C. McGill Jr., senior scientist emeritus at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research in San Antonio. 'What we've found through literally decades of study is that the beginning of atherosclerosis (often called hardening of the arteries) can be detected in children as young as 12 years old. They may be in their 40s or 50s or 60s when they experience a heart attack, but the build-up of deposits in the artery walls began many years earlier, when they were kids.'
McGill believes a 'cultural revolution' will be necessary for attitudes to change about children's lifestyles. But he's already seeing hopeful signs, including more schools prohibiting sugar-laced soft drinks on campus and re-instating physical education classes.
'Fifty years ago, two thirds of the U.S. population smoked, and today that number is closer to one fifth,' he added. 'That's still too many smokers but it shows that society's attitudes and individuals' behaviors can change over time.'
Under the Pathobiological Determinants of Atherosclerosis in Youth (PDAY) study, McGill and research scientists from 13 other institutions across the country have been studying risk factors for adult coronary heart disease (lipoproteins, blood pressure, blood glucose, smoking, obesity) in young people since 1987. They collected tissue and data from about 3,000 young persons 15 through 34 years of age - all of whom had died of accidents, homicide, or suicide and were autopsied in forensic laboratories - and measured the atherosclerosis in their arteries.
The results show conclusively that the risk factors for adult coronary heart disease are associated with the progression of atherosclerosis beginning in the teen years. The association is so strong and consistent that a causal relationship appears highly likely. These results indicate that prevention of adult coronary heart disease should begin with control of risk factors beginning in adolescence, McGill said.
In fact, three subsequent studies from around the world have confirmed the PDAY group's findings. These studies involved living young people in whom atherosclerosis was measured by ultrasound and x-ray. Using a risk score system developed by PDAY scientists, the studies have shown that risk factors for cardiovascular disease measured in the teenage years can be used to accurately predict levels of thickening of carotid arteries and calcification of coronary arteries (both markers for atherosclerosis) 15 years later.
Two common risk factors that almost anyone can do something about, McGill said, are smoking and obesity. Too many calories and not enough exercise lead to obesity, which has become an epidemic in many developed nations and is the most powerful risk factor for diabetes. Diabetes leads to an array of health problems that include heart attacks, blindness, and kidney failure.
'We're seeing more kids today with adult-type diabetes than we've ever seen before. And, unfortunately, we still have about 20 percent of high school students in the U.S. smoking,' McGill said. 'And there's absolutely nothing good you can say about what smoking does to your body.'
All of which gets back to what can be done to address the problem. The burden primarily falls on parents, McGill said. 'If you're a parent, don't smoke. Eat healthy. Exercise. Set the right example. If you're eating a lot of junk food, smoking, and letting yourself become overweight, you're teaching your kids to do the same thing. But it doesn't cost a thing to change those habits.'