Number of teenagers with risk factors for heart disease is rising

More than one in five teenagers has at least one risk factor for heart disease such as obesity and high cholesterol, a jump from just six years earlier, suggests new research.

CALGARY — More than one in five teenagers has at least one risk factor for heart disease such as obesity and high cholesterol, a jump from just six years earlier, suggests new research.

Researchers partnered with a group that has been following the heart health of thousands of teenagers in the Niagara region of Ontario for more than two decades.

They found that between the years 2002 and 2008, the number of Grade 9 students with one or more cardiovascular risk factors rose to 21 per cent from 17 per cent.

The number of obese teens went from 11 per cent to 13 per cent, while those with elevated cholesterol almost doubled from nine per cent to 16 per cent.

The only figure to buck the trend was the number of students with high blood pressure, which dropped slightly from 19 per cent to 17 per cent.

The figures mirror what’s going on in Canadian society overall, said Dr. Brian McCrindle, a pediatric cardiologist at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

At least three-quarters of teens who are overweight or obese stay that way as adults, and have the highest risk for heart attacks and strokes, he said.

“Unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised because this is just documentation with a greater degree of specificity of what has been going on in the general population,” he said.

“What needs to be brought to bear within the public realm is that the origins of heart disease in adults actually begins in youth, and it begins in youth with the accumulation of these risk factors.”

McCrindle, who was scheduled to present the research Tuesday at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress in Edmonton, said most of the risk factors are connected to lifestyle.

Despite public education campaigns about the importance of exercise and grabbing an apple instead of a chocolate bar, kids’ behaviour isn’t changing. Many teens are slurping back sugar-filled pops, skipping meals and spending more and more time inside staring at screens.

“What it does suggest is that just informing the public and educating them about the problem doesn’t necessarily translate into changes in policy or in behaviour,” McCrindle said.

Dr. Tom Warshawski, chair of the Childhood Obesity Foundation, said he and other pediatricians have been observing the same trends in their own patients.

“Quite clearly what we’ve been doing hasn’t been effective,” said Warshawski, who was not involved in the research.

“We haven’t, as public health advocates, been able to get out the appropriate messaging and education to people.”

Warshawski said his group has identified two factors as the “canary in a coal mine” when it comes to childhood obesity — sugar-sweetened drinks and the amount of time spent in front of a screen.

Just focusing a message on those two factors alone can make a significant difference in the health of teens, he said.

Other solutions could be restricting the sale of junk food and drinks and considering taxation on unhealthy food.

Any type of permanent change is going to have to come from many different levels, said McCrindle.