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Teen health today indicates high risk of future heart disease, say experts

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Less than 1 percent of teenagers' diets were rated as ideal in a recent study, which researchers said plays a role in teenagers' collective, elevated risk for heart disease in the future.

Teens aren't very healthy these days, and that means their collective risk of heart disease in the future is on the rise.

So says a study appearing in the journal Circulation, which said the prevalence of ideal heart health among American teenagers is "alarmingly low." Researchers pointed to their diets and exercise habits as two big culprits:

The low prevalence of ideal cardiovascular health behaviors in US adolescents, particularly physical activity and dietary intake, will likely contribute to a worsening prevalence of obesity, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, and dysglycemia as the current US adolescent population reaches adulthood.

Hypertension refers to high blood pressure; hypercholesterolemia refers to high cholesterol; dysglycemia refers to abnormal blood sugar levels.

Researchers based their evaluations of teen health off seven factors: blood pressure, cholesterol levels, body mass index (a measure of obesity), blood sugar, diet, physical activity and smoking habits. Nearly 4,700 teens were rated as poor, intermediate or ideal in each of those categories.

Here's what the study's authors found:

  • More than 80 percent of boys and girls were rated as having a poor diet.
  • Less than 1 percent were rated as having an ideal diet.
  • Only 50 percent of girls and 45 percent of boys had acceptable levels of five or more of the health factors.
  • Forty-four percent of girls and 67 percent of boys had ideal physical activity regimens.
  • Girls and boys were about equal on the obesity front: About two-thirds of each group had ideal weights.
  • About 1 in 3 teens had cholesterol levels that weren't ideal.
  • The majority of the teens hadn't ever smoked a cigarette or tried to smoke one recently.

The prevalence of less-than-ideal ratings doesn't bode well for the teens' heart health as they grow older. Researchers wrote that "significant clinical and public health interventions will be required" for a lot of teenagers if they want to have a chance at a healthy heart. That's particularly true for minority populations, they added.

Dr. Marc Weigensberg, a clinical pediatrics professor and researcher at the University of Southern California's Child Obesity Research Center, says he certainly sees evidence of the findings in his own work.

"There's no doubt we're seeing a huge increase in heart disease risk factors in teenagers today, particularly in teenagers with obesity," he said. "And the minority populations in lower socioeconomic areas are clearly more proportionately affected by obesity than other areas."

Weigensberg, who's also the director of pediatric endocrinology at LAC+USC Medical Center, mostly works with youth from East L.A., but said he's encountered southside children and teens as well.

"I think particularly in the African-American and Latino communities in [those areas], the kids definitely fall within that high-risk category," he said.

The doctor said crafting an intervention will be tough.

"I think an intervention really has to look at a very broad set of risk factors," he said. "So not only availability and affordability of healthy foods, and safe and adequate areas for physical activity, but also at lifestyle factors such as stress and community connections and things like that, because it really is a large and multidimensional problem."

South L.A.'s child obesity prevalence rate is among the county's highest, according to the latest data from the L.A. County's Department of Public Health: Nearly 30 percent of children in both L.A. City Council districts 8 and 9 are obese.

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