In 1953, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association radically changed our understanding of the development of heart disease. Researchers conducted autopsies on 300 American casualties of the Korean War, with an average age of around 22. Shockingly, 77 percent of soldiers already had visible evidence of coronary atherosclerosis. Some even had arteries that were blocked off 90 percent or more.
Later studies of accidental death victims aged 3 to 26 found that fatty streaks—the first stage of atherosclerosis—were in nearly all American children by age 10. By the time we reach our 20s and 30s, these fatty streaks can turn into full-blown plaques like those seen in the young American GIs of the Korean War. By the time we’re 40 or 50, they can start killing us off.
Atherosclerosis may start even before birth. Researchers found that the arteries of fetuses whose mothers had high LDL cholesterol levels were more likely to contain arterial lesions, suggesting atherosclerosis may not just start as a nutritional disease of childhood but one during pregnancy.
Childhood obesity and childhood diabetes have risen dramatically. Over recent decades, the number of American children considered to be overweight has increased by more than 100 percent. Children who are obese at age six seem more likely to stay that way, and 75 to 80 percent of obese adolescents may remain obese as adults.
Childhood obesity may be a powerful predictor of adult disease and death. Being overweight as a teenager was found to predict disease risk 55 years later. Such individuals may end up with twice the risk of dying from heart disease and a higher incidence of other diseases, including colorectal cancer, gout, and arthritis. Being overweight as a teen may in fact be an even more powerful predictor of disease risk than being overweight as an adult.
Image Credit: Unsplash. This image has been modified.
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