Cholesterol Drugs Grow More Common For Adolescents

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A man's finger is pricked to test his cholesterol at the City of Newark's free homeless health fair at the Department of Child and Family Well-Being on August 13, 2009 in Newark, New Jersey.

About 7 in 10,000 kids got a cholesterol-lowering prescription drug in 2009, according to data from drug benefit manager Medco. The increase in use was greatest for adolescent girls.

Researchers who screened 20,000 kids for high cholesterol in West Virginia suggest the time has come to start looking at the fat in all kids' blood -- not just those who have a family history of cholesterol trouble.

How come? The West Virginia team found 98 children among the nearly 6,000 who wouldn't normally be tested for high cholesterol had cholesterol levels bad enough to warrant treatment with drugs. The results appear in the latest issue of Pediatrics.

Many cholesterol drugs, such as statins like Lipitor, are approved for the treatment of kids with genetically linked high cholesterol that can lead to early heart trouble.

Better diet, weight loss and exercise remain the first options for most kids with too much fat in their blood. Side effects, such as muscle pain, and limited data on long-term use of the drugs in kids are reasons to proceed cautiously with the medicines in children.

But, we wondered, how many kids are already getting cholesterol medicines?

We asked the folks at the big pharmacy benefit manager Medco if they could look over their data for us. Here's what they found. Among kids, from newborns up to 19, about 7 in 10,000 got a cholesterol-lowering prescription drug in 2009. For comparison, the figure was about 6 kids per 10,000 in 2001, according to the Medco.

Drill down a little and things get more interesting. The biggest increase in kids' cholesterol drug use was in girls, ages 10 to 19. In 2009, about 8 in 10,000 girls in that group took a cholesterol drug -- a 155 percent increase compared with slightly more than 3 per 10,000 who were taking a cholesterol drug in 2001.

For boys in that age range, cholesterol drug use rose a more modest 13 percent over the same period to nearly 10 in 10,000 from about 9 per 10,000.

"There's no question that we've seen an increase in the lipid values in children, and that's probably due to the obesity epidemic," Donald Pittman, a pharmacist who leads the cardiovascular drug group at Medco, tells Shots.

Still, the use of cholesterol drugs fell by around a third for the youngest boys and girls, from birth to age 9, between 2001 and 2009. For boys in that group, use fell to 5 per 10,000 from 8 per 10,000. For girls that age, use declined to almost 4 per 10,000 from a little more than 5 per 10,000. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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