Overweight and obese children as young as 3 years old may already show early signs of heart disease, a new study says.
Among the 3-to-6-year-olds in the study, those who were obese or overweight also had elevated levels of fats in the blood (lipids) and increased in inflammation in the body, though the strength of the link varied based on the children's ethnicities.
It's too early to tell whether the children in the study will indeed develop heart disease. These early markers of heart disease were measured only at one age, and could change over time. However, the researchers said, obese children tend to become obese adults, and these risk factors have been found to persist over time.
"Overweight and obesity at any age is not a healthy thing," said study researcher Dr. Sarah Messiah, an associate research professor of pediatrics at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
One in four children under age 5 in the United States is overweight or obese, and the findings underscore the importance of preventing unhealthy weight gain in kids.
"Families should be working hard to have healthy diet and physical activity patterns, starting even at a young age, so we can prevent overweight and obesity from occurring in the first place," said Dr. Stephen Daniels, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study.
The study was published online Dec. 8 in the journal Obesity.
Messiah and colleagues analyzed information from 3,644 children who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 1999 and 2008. Participants underwent an exam by a physician to determine their body mass index (ratio of weight to height) and waist circumference, and their blood was tested for various heart-disease risk factors.
About 14 percent of the children were classified as obese, and 26 percent as overweight.
For White girls, Hispanic boys, and Black boys and girls, elevated body mass index and waist circumference were linked to increased levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation.
For Hispanic children, a high body mass index and large waist circumference was associated with elevated lipid levels and low amounts of "good" cholesterol.
The researchers said it wasn't clear from the data why there were differences between different ethnic groups, but genetics or certain behaviors may be involved.
Stress on the body
It's possible these children could improve their health over time. Dr. Rae-Ellen Kavey, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center, noted that studies have shown very little association between elevated levels of C-reactive protein in childhood and health problems later in life.
In fact, it's possible C-reactive protein could have been elevated because the child was fighting off a cold or the flu, Kavey said.
But if factors such as inflammation and lipid levels remain high, they can put stress on organs over time. "The cumulative effect of that cannot be good," Messiah said.
For doctors, "it's never too early really to start talking to families about their child being overweight," Messiah said.
Pass it on: Obese 3-year-olds may develop risk factors for heart disease.