Beginning in childhood, the waxy substance called cholesterol and other fatty substances known as lipids begin to build up in the arteries. Slowly, over many years, these build-ups harden into plaques that narrow the arterial passageways. During adulthood, plaque buildup and resulting health problems occur not only in the arteries supplying blood to the heart muscle but in arteries throughout the body (a problem known as atherosclerosis). For both men and women in the United States, the number one cause of death is heart disease, and the amount of cholesterol in the blood greatly affects a person's chances of suffering from it.
Growing evidence shows that the biological processes that precede heart attacks and cardiovascular disease begin in childhood, although they don't generally cause symptoms or lead to disease until middle age or later. Physical activity and healthy eating in childhood and adolescence—appropriately limiting unhealthy cholesterol, saturated fat, and trans fat—may protect against heart disease in adulthood.
In an effort to get an earlier start on cardiovascular prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a new guideline in 2011 that included the recommendation that youth get routine screening with tests for lipids, including cholesterol. A lipid profile typically includes the following tests: total cholesterol, HDL-cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol, and triglycerides. Non-HDL-cholesterol can also be calculated by subtracting the HDL-C value from the total cholesterol result.
Specifically, the AAP recommends:
- Ages 12-16 years
- No routine screening; if no risk factors, no testing needed.
- If new knowledge of risk factors, fasting lipid profile twice during this time period.
- Ages 17-21 years
- Universal screening; even if no risk factors, non-fasting lipid profile once during this time period.
- If results of concern, fasting lipid profile twice during this time period.
For teens with unhealthy lipid levels, the AAP recommends dietary and lifestyle changes, including more exercise, as the often-effective first steps. In some cases, including when lipid levels do not improve with dietary and lifestyle changes, then medication may be needed. Talk to your teen's doctor about what would be appropriate in their situation.
- Family History: Teens are at increased risk if they have a parent, grandparent, aunt/uncle, or sibling who has high cholesterol or if they have a family history of cardiovascular disease (prior to age 55 in male relative and age 65 in female relative).
- Personal Health: Teens are also at higher risk if they:
Sources Used in Current Review
CDC. FASTSTATS – Leading Causes of Death (2009 data). Available online at http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/lcod.htm through http://www.cdc.gov. Accessed June 2012.
Kavey R-EW, et al. Expert panel on integrated guidelines for cardiovascular health and risk reduction in children and adolescents: Summary report. Pediatrics 2011; 128: DOI:10.1542/peds.2009-2107C. PDF available for download at http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/site/misc/2009-2107.pdf through http://pediatrics.aappublications.org. Accessed June 2012.
KidsHealth.org. Cholesterol and Your Child. Available online at http://kidshealth.org/parent/medical/heart/cholesterol.html# through http://kidshealth.org. Accessed June 2012.