Toddlers Should Take Cholesterol Tests, Study Recommends

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Early cholesterol tests for your toddler could indicate whether they’re at risk for heart disease years in the future.

A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found, by screening children and their parents for high cholesterol, the risk of heart disease later in life is twice as common as it was thought to be. The study tested for familial hypercholesterolemia, a genetic disorder that if untreated, raises the risk of heart attack by age 40.

“We really need to pay attention to this,” Elaine Urbina, director of preventive cardiology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and a member of the U.S. expert panel, told The Associated Press. “It’s reasonable to screen for something that’s common, dangerous and has a treatment that’s effective and safe.”

It also revealed some parents had high cholesterol and didn’t know it, and had passed it along to their children. Ninety percent of those tested began taking preventative medicines. The study received blood samples to measure cholesterol levels and children were considered at risk if their cholesterol levels were elevated after a 3-month period or if they had a gene mutation for the condition. If they had the mutation, parents were tested as well.

Currently, experts recommend testing children between the ages of nine and 11 years old. Even then, many aren’t tested unless they are obese or have other heart risk factors such as high blood pressure or diabetes. One in 270 children had the gene mutation for familial hypercholesterolemia and others were identified just through cholesterol levels.

“That’s a pretty common genetic defect,” said Dr. Stephen Daniels, chairman of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and a member of the U.S. expert panel.

Still, parents are skeptical about screening for a condition that’s mainly associated with middle age instead of children.

Karen Teber, a media relations specialist in Madison, Wisconsin, was surprised when a doctor wanted to test her 12-year-old stepson. “My reluctance was really born out of lack of information,” she said. “I hadn’t heard of it before.”

For every 1,000 children screened, four parents and four children were identified as having positive screening results for familial hypercholesterolemia. While children were found to be at risk, it also helped parents find out if they were at risk early enough to benefit from medications.

This doesn’t mean children are recommended for medications like adults, though. Dr. William Cooper, a pediatrics and preventative medicine professor at Vanderbilt University said the study was “an innovative approach,” but experts say children wouldn’t need to take cholesterol-lowering drugs such as statins.

“We’re not talking about putting all these kids on statins,” Urbina said.

Statins aren’t recommended until age 10, but dietary supplements like plant sterols and stanols could help younger kids, she said.

The study was led by David Wald at Queen Mary University in London. Wald and another author founded a company that makes a combination pill to prevent heart disease.