TIME Heart Disease

Obese Kids As Young As 8 May Have Heart Problems

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The unhealthy effects of obesity can start to burden the heart at very early ages, the latest study finds

The health risks associated with extra weight are not news, of course, but scientists have a new concern among the youngest and the heaviest. Researchers at the American Heart Association annual meeting in Florida reported Tuesday that excess weight in children can lead to potentially harmful changes in the hearts of kids as young as 8.

Linyuan Jing, a post doctoral fellow from the Geisinger Health System, and her colleagues studied 20 obese children—meaning their body mass index was over 35, whereas a healthy range is 18.5 to 25—and 20 normal-weight children. All had MRIs of their hearts to see if the obesity was affecting that muscle. They found that it was.

Obese children had 12% thicker heart muscle overall compared to the normal-weight children. Thicker heart muscle suggests that the heart is working harder to pump blood; even more concerning was that the heavier children showed 27% thicker left ventricles, the chamber of the heart responsible for pumping blood to the body. They also showed signs of having less contractility, which is a possible early sign of decreased heart function. Previous studies have linked thickened heart muscle in adults to premature death from heart-related causes.

“It’s surprising to see evidence of heart disease among eight year olds,” says Jing. “Because that implies that children younger than eight could have signs of heart disease as well.”

The study only found a connection between obesity and changes in heart structure, but Jing hopes to continue the work to understand which factors related to obesity might be contributing to the changes. “We hope the changes in the heart are reversible, but we don’t know that currently,” she says.

She and her colleagues plan to enroll 200 children for a deeper look at factors such as blood pressure and diabetes and whether they also influence the heart changes she saw.

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