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"Public health efforts are needed in the very early years to prevent problems with obesity and being overweight, to avoid the risk of adolescent and adult cardiovascular disease," said study author Melissa Wake, from the Murdoch Children's Research Institute in Australia.
Wake's team followed more than 1,800 children in Australia whose weight and height were checked every two years to determine their heart disease risk scores. At age 11 to 12, their blood pressure, blood vessel health, cholesterol and blood glucose (sugar) levels were also assessed.
Those who were obese or overweight as toddlers had evidence of stiffer arteries, thickened arterial lining and were at high risk of developing metabolic syndrome later in life. Metabolic syndrome is a group of heart disease risk factors that occur together. The signs of heart disease were worse the longer children were overweight or obese.
"Our findings are in line with the World Health Organization's calls for urgent collaborative action to address the matter through systems-based approaches and policy implementation," she added.
"Such policies include increasing taxes on processed foods high in fat and sugar, safer and improved public transport and walking to school pathways, and making community-based sporting activities more affordable and accessible," Wake explained.
Until now, little has been known about how body mass index (BMI -- an estimate of body fat based on weight and height) early in life affects heart health later in childhood, according to Kate Lycett, from the institute.
"Previous studies have tended to rely on a single BMI measurement in childhood and then examined subsequent heart health outcomes in adulthood," Lycett said. "This overlooks the considerable BMI changes as part of normal childhood growth."
Obesity is a major public health threat, Lycett warned.
"This public health crisis threatens the modest decline in cardiovascular deaths in developed countries, which has largely been achieved through preventive efforts focused on cardiovascular risk factors," she said.
-- Robert Preidt
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