However, some experts find the new guidelines to be a bit premature, saying they create the potential for doctors to overdiagnose a problem that may appear much later in life or not at all. In 2007, another government panel, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, concluded that there was not enough evidence to recommend cholesterol testing for children and teens.
"We have no clinical trials demonstrating any benefit to treatment of elevated cholesterol levels in children," said Dr. Steve Nissen, chairman of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. "I do not think these guidelines are wise and they are certainly not evidence-based."
Other experts are also concerned about the government panel's endorsement of statins, a class of drugs that help lower cholesterol. The new guidelines recommend that children whose high cholesterol levels don't drop significantly after diet and lifestyle changes can take the medications, such as Zocor and Lipitor, to bring their levels down.
Statins are widely used among adults with high cholesterol, but are relatively untested in children. The American Academy of Pediatrics already says children as young as 8 can safely take the drugs, but critics say there's not enough evidence to indicate the drugs are definitely safe for children over a long period of time.
"I'm just very concerned about the premature and possibly aggressive use of medications in growing children," said Dr. Lee Goldman, dean of the faculties of health science and medicine at Columbia University. "It may well turn out to be safe and effective, but to make recommendations in the absence of any major trials in children concerns me."
McBride said less than 1 percent of children would be eligible to take statins under the new guidelines. Children and families should still try diet and exercise changes to bring cholesterol down.