Many people don’t realize that problems with high cholesterol levels can begin in childhood. High cholesterol levels are likely to continue to rise as a child grows into a teen and adult. High cholesterol levels increase your child’s risk for cholesterol-related health problems.
Your child’s body needs some cholesterol to protect nerves, make cell tissues and produce certain hormones. But too much cholesterol damages blood vessels by building up along blood vessel walls and forming sticky, fatty-like deposits known as plaque. Studies show that plaque can begin to form in childhood and is more likely to form when a child’s cholesterol levels are high.
High cholesterol levels increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. The risk is higher in people who have a family history of heart disease, have diabetes, are overweight or obese, have unhealthy eating habits, are inactive, or who smoke. Talk with your doctor about whether your child or teen needs to be screened for high cholesterol.
Your body’s liver makes all the cholesterol your body needs. However, you can also get cholesterol from the foods you eat, including animal products such as eggs, meats and dairy products.
Cholesterol travels through the blood in different types of bundles, called lipoproteins.
Low-density lipoproteins (LDL) deliver cholesterol to the body. That’s why it’s often thought of as the “bad” cholesterol. Some people’s bodies make too much LDL cholesterol. LDL levels also are increased by eating foods high in saturated fat, trans fats and dietary cholesterol.
High-density lipoproteins (HDL) remove cholesterol from the blood. HDL is known as the “good” cholesterol for this reason. A healthy level of HDL may help protect against heart disease. Exercise can increase the amount of HDL the body produces. Avoiding trans fats and following a healthy diet also can increase HDL levels.
This explains why too much LDL cholesterol is bad for the body, and why a high level of HDL is good. The balance between the types of cholesterol tells you what the total cholesterol level really means. For example, if the total cholesterol level is high because of a high LDL level, the risk for heart disease or stroke is higher. But if the total level is high because of a high HDL level, the risk probably is not increased.
To test for high cholesterol, your doctor can do a blood test called a lipid panel. However, screening is usually not done unless there is a family history of high cholesterol or the child or teen has diabetes.
If your doctor recommends a lipid panel, talk to him or her about what levels are right for your child’s age and development. The American Academy of Pediatrics generally recommends the following levels for children and teens 2 to 19 years of age:
Acceptable — less than 170
Borderline — 170-199
High — 200 or greater
Acceptable — less than 110
Borderline — 110-129
High — 130 or greater
Help your child maintain a healthy weight by teaching him or her to make good choices about diet and exercise.
Offer your child at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and other foods low in saturated fat and cholesterol, such as whole grains and fish. Encourage your child to avoid saturated and trans fats, which can raise cholesterol levels. Also limit overall cholesterol intake. More information about nutrition is available in our handout about how to make healthier food choices and also in Nutrition: Healthy Eating for Kids.
You also can help your child form healthy habits regarding exercise and activity. Encourage your child to choose activities he or she enjoys. Involve the whole family in active time, such as walking, bike riding, bowling and more. Limit screen time (the time your child spends watching TV, or playing video or computer games). See more information about exercise in children in Keeping Your Child Active.
If your child or teen’s cholesterol levels are high and healthy eating and exercise don't lower them, especially if he or she has diabetes or is overweight or obese, your family doctor may consider prescribing a cholesterol-lowering medicine. Not all medicines are safe for use in children so do not offer your child cholesterol-lowering medicine that isn’t specifically prescribed to him or her.
This content was developed with general underwriting support from The Coca-Cola Company.
American Heart Association. Cholesterol and Atherosclerosis in Children. Accessed January 14, 2011
Texas Heart Institute. Heart Disease Risk Factors for Children and Teenagers. Accessed January 14, 2011
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff