The growing pain of teen obesity and high cholesterol

  • Rhythma Kaul & Anubhuti Matta, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Aug 30, 2015 18:37 IST
Regular use of junk food and lack of an exercise regime has put urban kids at increased risk of high cholesterol levels.(Photo: istock)

The urban teen lifestyle of pizzas, burgers, colas and very little activity is having alarming effects, with youngsters reporting high cholesterol and blood pressure levels and even suffering heart attacks.

When Delhi-resident Sarthak Kohli* had a heart attack at 21, for instance, he was told that his cholesterol (an indicator of fatty deposits in the blood vessels) and triglycerides (fats stored by the body for emergency) had been building up for four years.

"The problem with young people is that since high cholesterol and triglycerides don't cause symptoms, they don't get tested. A third die before reaching a hospital," says Dr Viveka Kumar, director of the cardiac cath lab at Max Healthcare, Delhi. "All the kids I see with bad lipid profiles are eating calorie-heavy food on a regular basis. I recently conducted an angioplasty on a 21-year-old to prop open a blocked artery."

Dr Kumar first met Kohli when he stumbled into Max complaining of chest pain, five months ago. "I would never have imagined I was having a heart attack, but the pain was so sudden and excruciating that I rushed to the hospital," Kohli says. Kohli's triglycerides were at 450 when he was tested at Max; the normal range is less than 150. He has now cut down on smoking and drinking, exercises regularly, and his triglyceride levels are at 200.

It often all starts with high cholesterol, doctors say, and this is affecting urban Indians younger than ever before - particularly those with a family history of cholesterol, blood pressure or heart conditions, and of course those who are overweight.

Weighty Issues
A study of 2,502 Delhi children aged 14 to 18 (826 girls and 1,676 boys from various socio-economic strata) threw up some worrying findings.

Conducted by the Lipid Association of India between 2012 and 2014, it tracked the imbalance of lipids or fats in the blood stream. Its findings were published in the March edition of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. Here's a look at the key findings:

2.3% were overweight, indicated by a Body Mass Index of 25 to 29

were obese, with a body mass index of more than 30

23% had cholesterol levels higher than 170 mg/dl

had low-density lipoprotein (LDL or bad cholesterol) that exceeded 110 mg/dl

18% had triglycerides (fats stored by the body for emergency) beyond the normal level of 130 mg/dl

had high density lipoprotein (HDL or good cholesterol) lower than 45 mg/dl

25% had high density lipoprotein lower than 40 mg/dl

23.2% had non-HDL cholesterol higher than 120 mg/dl

A recent study published in Journal of the American College of Cardiology in March found that 23% of the 2,502 children surveyed in suburban Delhi had cholesterol levels above the normal range. The children were aged 14 to 18. "Many suffered from frightening indicator of heart attack and stroke and had alarmingly low HDL or good cholesterol levels aggravated by high BMIs, in some cases touching the level of obesity," says interventional cardiologist Dr Raman Puri, who conducted the survey.

Karishma Bose* from Mumbai was not part of that survey, but would have fallen into this category. The 5'2" girl was diagnosed with obesity at 15, when a school health check found her 17 kg overweight. Over the previous year, she had become trapped in a vicious cycle of gaining weight, feeling too fat, lethargic to dance or play badminton like before, eating for comfort, making her gain all the more weight. She had begun to spend evenings at home, snacking. Her mother Seema*, 43, a Mumbai-based banker, became concerned when she noticed dark patches on the folds in the back of the teen's neck. "I thought Karishma wasn't scrubbing properly," says Seema. "But when they refused to disappear, we visited her paediatrician."

The doctor told the stunned Boses that their daughter had a medical condition called acanthosis nigricans, a hyperpigmentation that often accompanied obesity and, if ignored particularly in children, could end in Type 2 diabetes. Karishma also suffered from hypertension, severe headaches and nausea, so Dr Vishal Mukhija recommended a blood test. The test revealed that her LDL or bad cholesterol was at 240 mg/dL (milligrams per deciliter) -with the upper limit of the normal range for someone her age being 200 mg/dL.

"The only treatment in such cases is to improve one's eating habits and lifestyle," says Dr Mukhija. "It is best to avoid medication at such a young age." Now 17, Karishma has lost 13 kg and follows her 'treatment' plan religiously, avoiding packaged foods, eating small portions at two-hour intervals and practising yoga with a private teacher.

"Nuclear families with working parents typically dine out more and find it harder to enforce regular meal times and eating habits," says Dr Archana Juneja, consultant endocrinologist at Mumbai's Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital. "Exercise can lower cholesterol levels by up to 10%. Eating unprocessed cereals and dry fruits can also help a lot," adds Dr Ramakanta Panda of the Asian Heart Institute.

Dr Ritesh Gupta of Fortis C-DOC, New Delhi agrees: "Parents making kids conscious of healthy vs unhealthy food is crucial. Effort to oversee children's diets will help keep their weight and cholesterol down."

(*Names changed on request)

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