Being overweight or obese as a child increases the risk of heart disease in adulthood, a new study suggests.
Children who are overweight are more likely to be diagnosed with coronary heart disease as adults compared with their skinnier counterparts, researchers from Denmark report in a study to be published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
The finding could be especially relevant for the United States, where growing numbers of obese children have medical experts worried about future health consequences -- and it could amplify calls for families, communities and governments to take action.
"A small increase in body weight substantially increases heart disease later in life," says Dr. David Ludwig, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Harvard Medical School, who wrote an accompanying editorial to the study.
"If childhood obesity markedly increases heart disease risks, we are looking at a huge public health problem," he says.
Researchers followed 277,000 Danish school children and found that overweight boys between the ages of 7 and 13, as well as overweight girls between the ages of 9 and 13, had an increased risk of both developing heart disease and dying from it as adults.
The older the children are, the higher the chance for later heart risk, the researchers also found. So, for example, a boy who was heavier than his peers at age 7 had a 5 percent increased risk for later heart disease, but a boy who was heavier than his peers at age 13 had a 17 percent greater risk.
"The study seems to underscore what we knew tends to happen in adults -- obesity increases your risk for heart disease," says Keith-Thomas Ayoob, associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
"Children who have been obese for much of their childhood will enter adulthood with chronic health problems that will only continue if their BMI remains high."
However, what U.S. experts find most concerning is that the fattest Danish boys were barely overweight according to this country's standards, which means that obese U.S. children could be at an even greater risk for heart disease.
"According to the study, the boy in the heaviest weight range had a 33 percent higher risk of developing heart disease," says Ludwig. "That is really disturbing. Boys in the heaviest weight category barely make it out of the normal weight range in the U.S., which means there is an even greater risk for the millions of obese children in the U.S."
Experts also warn that if left unchecked, childhood obesity and a sedentary lifestyle may undo advancements that have been made in heart disease prevention and survival.
"Major strides have been made in decreasing cardiovascular disease mortality in last few decades," says Dr. JoAnn Manson, a professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School.
"The trends of increasing obesity in children and adolescents threaten to reverse the progress we have made. I think that a call to action is needed or we may be looking at a reversal of many of these gains."
Coronary heart disease), which is caused by the buildup of plaque in the arteries, results in restricted blood flow to the heart and can cause chest pain, heart attacks, and even heart failure. It is already the leading cause of death in the United States -- and its prevalence isn't likely to decrease anytime soon.