One in five adolescents aged 14 to 15 now has high blood pressure or high cholesterol or both and that could be putting them on the fast track to heart disease, new research shows.
"This study is further evidence of an accelerating decline in the heart health of Canada's teens," said Brian McCrindle, a cardiologist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
"Children just shouldn't have these problems."
Dr. McCrindle said children and adolescents are developing risk factors for heart disease because they are increasingly overweight and inactive, and because many have poor dietary habits.
"We know the causes but now we have to work on getting them to change behaviours," he said.
The research, presented yesterday at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress in Edmonton, involved 20,719 Grade 9 students in the Niagara region of Ontario, who have been tracked since 2002.
Researchers found that, in 2008, 17 per cent of the students had high blood pressure, 16 per cent had elevated cholesterol levels and 30 per cent were either overweight or obese.
In addition, only 22 per cent of students reported meeting recommended activity levels for their age, meaning 90 minutes of activity at least five days a week. The 14- to 15-year-olds also reported a lot of sedentary behaviour, including 24 per cent of teens who spent at least 20 hours weekly watching TV or playing video games.
All the students participated in an initiative by Heart Niagara, a charitable group that provides screenings in high schools and helps bolster the health curriculum.
Dr. McCrindle said the initiative has provided valuable data as well as a good learning opportunity for the students.
"But education is never enough. It does not, in itself, lead to behaviour change," he said.
Rather, students and their parents need to have the ability to put what they learn into action and that requires community programs that make sports accessible, changes in the city layouts so biking is safe and easy, and policy changes such as reducing salt in processed foods.
Beth Abramson, a Toronto cardiologist and spokeswoman for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, called the new data on the cardiovascular risk factors of teenagers alarming.
"What does this say for the future health of these young teens?" she said. "They are at risk of developing long-term health effects such as premature heart disease and Type 2 diabetes."
Dr. Abramson said that while high blood pressure and high cholesterol are not visible and cause no apparent symptoms in young people, "they will continue to increase and track into adulthood unless we do something now.
"These children are in grave danger."
In 2005, the most recent year for which there are detailed data, there were 67,343 deaths caused by heart disease and strokes, according to Statistics Canada.