Overweight children developing heart problems as waistlines grow during pandemic

ATHENS, Ga. — Childhood obesity isn’t just ruining waistlines, it’s also paving the way for serious heart trouble among youths, a new study warns. Researchers from the University of Georgia have found that excess weight is leading to more artery stiffness among children, teens, and young adults — a major risk factor for heart disease.

Obesity has become a growing problem during the pandemic as many people have put on the “COVID-15” from lack of activity. This problem isn’t just something adults are dealing with, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the childhood obesity rate has jumped from 19 percent pre-pandemic to 22 percent now. Moreover, the rate at which body mass index (BMI) has increased over the last two years has doubled.

Study authors examined over 600 children, adolescents, and young adults, measuring levels of visceral fat and stiffness in their arteries during this investigation. Visceral fat is fat in the abdomen which infiltrates the vital organs. The more arterial stiffness a person has, the harder their cardiovascular system has to work to pump blood.

The study discovered growing levels of visceral fat and arterial stiffness among overweight youths, pointing to their role in the development of childhood cardiovascular issues.

“The stiffer the artery, the faster blood is going to move through those blood vessels, and that can be detrimental and overstress our system,” says corresponding author Joseph Kindler, an assistant professor of nutritional sciences, in a university release. “As these issues build up, unfortunately, it’s sort of this game of dominoes. You tip one over, and the rest of the systems start being overtaxed. That’s when really pervasive health issues can occur.”

New technology helping to better measure fat levels

Study authors used dual energy X-ray absorptiometry (DXA) to measure each child’s body fat levels. It’s a technique that’s more common for bone and hormone research, but scientists say DXA is actually cheaper, faster, and requires less radiation than traditional scanning equipment for measuring fat.

The team also analyzed how long it took a participant’s blood to flow from the center of their body to their lower limbs. This is a standard method of assessing arterial stiffness among people of all ages.

“One really important take-home message is that arterial stiffness, which predisposes children to cardiovascular disease down the line, looks to be the most pronounced in individuals who have a high BMI,” Kindler reports.

Heart attacks and disease may become more common in children

Researchers say it’s concerning that more kids are also developing type 2 diabetes, noting that the condition used to be something only seen in adults. Overall, 145 children in the study had diabetes. Obesity is major risk factor for diabetes and both conditions contribute to the likelihood of developing heart disease later on.

“It’s a very pervasive, scary condition in youth, even more so than in adults,” Kindler adds. “Many body systems tend to degrade at a more accelerated rate if the disease occurs during the growing years than in adulthood. This disease attacks the brain, the kidneys, the bones, the liver. It really heightens the need for understanding ways we can prevent disease.”

In general, researchers say there are few cardiovascular disease studies among children. The new findings suggest that negative changes to the cardiovascular system — such as gaining too much weight at an early age — could increase the chances of children and adolescents suffering a heart attack.

Right now, the American Heart Association notes that the average age for someone experiencing their first heart attack is between 65 and 71 years-old.

“We want to prevent cardiovascular disease. We want kids to live strong, healthy lives into adulthood,” Kindler concludes. “But to do that, we need to know the underlying factors contributing to poor health outcomes so that we can identify where to target, whether that’s through diet, physical activity, sleep or some other intervention. Identification is key, and then intervention is critical.”

The study is published in the journal Pediatric Obesity.

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