Some UAE children have cholesterol levels found in 60-year-old men, doctors say

Obese children are at risk of developing early heart disease because of dangerously high cholesterol levels, doctors warn.

A child eats chips soaked in tomato sauce with a large fizzy drink at an Abu Dhabi fast food outlet. Sammy Dallal / The National
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ABU DHABI // Doctors are treating obese children with cholesterol levels normally found in 60-year-old men.

They are far more likely than healthy youngsters to develop hypertension and early heart disease, and many parents are unaware of their children’s cardiovascular ticking timebomb.

“We see children with cholesterol that goes beyond the acceptable level,” said Dr Maya Prabhakara, a paediatrician at LLH hospital in Abu Dhabi. “It is abnormal.”

A healthy person should have low levels of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, which is the main source of cholesterol build-up and blockage in the arteries, and high levels of HDL, or “good” cholesterol, which helps to prevent those issues.

“With obese patients, what we see is that the good cholesterol is lower than expected and the bad cholesterol is higher than expected,” said Dr Prabhakara.

“If you compare obese with non-obese children then, generally, they are two to three times more at risk of having bad cholesterol.

“Sometimes we are seeing cholesterol levels normally found in adults. Sometimes if a child is very bad we are seeing cholesterol normally seen in a 60-year-old man.”

The paediatrician said most of the children she treated were overweight or obese. While not all will have raised cholesterol, Dr Prabhakara estimates up to one in five overweight or obese children are at risk.

High blood pressure and high cholesterol are also linked.

If a child’s arteries have become lined with fatty deposit, their hearts must work harder to pump blood, putting them at risk of early heart disease.

“There is definitely a grey area between normal blood pressure and abnormal blood pressure,” said Dr Prabhakara. “We call this borderline hypertension.

“When a child is obese, there is a chance many will have borderline hypertension also – about 20 to 30 per cent.”

Dr Ahed Bisharat, head of general paediatrics at Burjeel Hospital in Abu Dhabi, has treated children with dangerously high levels of cholesterol.

In adults the desirable level is less than 200 milligrams per decilitre of blood (mg/dL) and, in children, 150mg/dL. Dr Bisharat has treated children with levels as high as 500mg/dL.

While some people have a genetic propensity to high cholesterol, eating transfats and saturated fats also increases the levels of bad cholesterol in the blood.

Dr Prabhakara said parents who failed to educate their children and instead gave in to demands for fatty junk food were partly to blame.

“Most of the children are addicted to bad food. I have seen a seven-year-old child weighing 40kg eating cheesecakes on a daily basis,” she said.

“Parents don’t think long term. They just think their child will be sad if they don’t give it, so they give it.”

Many parents probably do not think about what high cholesterol means for their children and that cardiovascular disease can have its roots in childhood, she said.

“When we tell them their child has a risk of developing hypertension and sometimes cardiovascular disease by the time they are 15 to 20 they are alarmed. They don’t think in that way,” Dr Prabhakara said.

However, the damage can be reversed if children overhaul their lifestyle and change their diet, she said.

Dr Gabi Wazz, a specialist obesity surgeon at Dr Sulaiman Al Habib Medical Centre in Dubai, also urged parents to be more aware of what they fed their children.

“Here we are talking about parents’ awareness because the child is not aware yet,” he said.

“In the Arab world they like to see a chubby child – it is equivalent to a healthy child.

“We are trying to change this view. This can only be done by parent awareness and to know what healthy food to provide at home.”