Reducing adult heart risks with teenage health promotion

A new Australian study (1) has suggested that health promotion campaigns which target young people in their teens could help to reduce their risk of heart problems in adulthood.  Many teenagers smoke and it is known that smoking can have a huge impact on cholesterol levels as well as general health later in life.  Previous studies have found that health warning signs such as high levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol (LDL cholesterol) are being seen in young people and there is concern that this is laying the foundation for future health problems.  On a positive note, this research (1) has found that teenagers who have high cholesterol levels at age 15 could normalise their levels by their mid-30s via various means.

The study (1) was set up in order to examine the effect of lifestyle changes on the stability of blood fat levels from youth to adulthood.  Over 500 young people were included in the study.  They underwent various tests at the start of the study in 1985 when they were aged 9, 12, or 15 years old.  They were then followed up between 2004 and 2006.  Changes in body fat levels, cardiorespiratory (heart and lung) fitness, saturated fat intakes, smoking and socioeconomic status were tracked.

The study scientists found that substantial proportions of the study participants with high-risk blood fat levels at the start of the study no longer had high-risk levels at follow-up. Of the participants who had high-risk levels in youth, those with greater increases in adiposity (body fat levels) or who commenced or continued smoking were more likely to maintain high-risk blood fat levels.  Participants who became high risk at follow-up had greater increases in adiposity, were less likely to improve their socioeconomic position, and tended to become less fit between surveys compared with those who maintained normal-risk levels (1).

The authors conclude that “Unhealthy lifestyle changes that occur between youth and adulthood affect whether an individual maintains, loses, or develops high-risk blood lipid and lipoprotein levels in adulthood. Interventions that promote weight control in the first instance, but also physical activity, not smoking, and improved socioeconomic position in the transition from youth to adulthood, are likely to be of benefit in preventing adult dyslipidemia [unhealthy blood fat levels]”.

In a BBC press release Costan Magnussen, lead study author from the University of Tasmania, said the study findings were important: “They suggest that beneficial changes in modifiable risk factors in the time between youth and adulthood have the potential to shift those with high-risk blood lipid and lipoprotein levels in youth to low-risk levels in adulthood,” He added that prevention programmes targeted at the young could also benefit those who develop bad habits as they get older.  Dr John Coleman, chairman of the Association for Young People’s Health, said (2): “This reseach gives a very clear example of why we need to invest more in adolescent health and make it a higher priority. It is clear that young people’s lifestyle choices have a long term impact on their health and it is cost effective and sensible to work with them to encourage healthy habits.”

Mike Knaptonof the Brtish Heart Foundation said: “All teenagers can do something to improve their cholesterol.”We should all be eating five portions of fruit and veg a day. And, most importantly, the message is don’t smoke.”

Promoting a healthy diet and active lifestyle is very important at all ages and needs to be encouraged for life, from a very early age.  Helping children in primary schools to eat healthily and be active could prove incredibly useful to prevent the risk of later health conditions.  Early age promotion might mean that children grow up to keep their healthy lifestyles as it will be seen as ‘normal’.  Initiating change later in life is often more difficult as individuals have to work hard to change habitual, long term behaviours.

(1) Magnussen CG et al.  2011.  Factors affecting the stability of blood lipid and lipoprotein levels from youth to adulthood: evidence from the childhood determinants of adult health study. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 165(1):68-76.

(2)Press Release.  BBC News.  4 January 2011.  Teenage health campaigns ‘reduce adult heart risks.

Written by Ani Kowal