Parents have been asking me if their children should have a blood test to screen them for cholesterol. Well let me do more than chew the fat on this topic and provide some information.
Cholesterol is a fat substance either made by the liver or introduced into the body from the foods we eat. Once inside the body, cholesterol contributes to our becoming overweight or obese and gets deposited in blood vessels, increasing our risk of heart disease.
Recently the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) changed its screening guidelines because it appears that cholesterol can start accumulating even in childhood, so they are now recommending that children over the age of two who are at risk for elevated cholesterol get a screening test, and even if the level is normal, continue to get screened every three to five years.
So who is at risk? Any child with a family history of high cholesterol or if there is a family history of a heart attack in someone less than 55 for men and 65 for women, or if the child or others in the family are overweight, hypertensive, or have diabetes. This would basically mean that three out of every four children will probably need to be screened because they fall into a risk category. But even if you do not screen your child, or they have a normal cholesterol level, you should still pay attention to trying to keep cholesterol levels low.
You can do this by reducing the amount of high cholesterol and saturated fats in your child's diet by cutting back on the amount of high fat dairy products and high fat meats that they eat.
Another good idea is to exercise regularly as a family to reduce the build-up of the types of cholesterol in all of us that can later affect the heart.
The AAP is also now recommending that if diet or exercise alone does not help lower cholesterol, then a cholesterol lowering medication usually recommended for adults can be tried in children eight years or older. Please discuss this option with your child's doctor to see if the benefits outweigh the risk of using these medications in your child.
Hopefully tips like these will allow you to get to the heart of the matter when it comes to knowing a little more about whether or not to screen your child for cholesterol.
Lewis First, M.D., is chief of pediatrics at Vermont Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. You can also catch "First with Kids" weekly on WOKO 98.9 FM and WCAX-TV Channel 3. Visit the First with Kids archives at www.vermontchildrens.org.