Let's be honest.

Baby fat might be cute on babies, but for toddlers and beyond it can indicate looming health problems.

Studies such as the one presented this week at a New Orleans meeting of the American Heart Association point to an alarming health trend in America's youth: The arteries of many obese children and teenagers are as thick and stiff as those of 45-year-olds. It's an indication that such children could have severe cardiovascular disease at a much younger age than their parents unless their condition is reversed.

A May study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 31.9 percent of U.S. children and teenagers are either obese or overweight. Theirs are the faces of this nation's future struggle with a disease that is already epidemic.

Yet so many people are unaware of the risk. And what they don't know can kill them.

Locally, Carter BloodCare has compiled statistics on the cholesterol rates of area teens. Because teenagers can give blood beginning at the age of 17, officials with the North Texas blood bank tracked the level of total non-fasting cholesterol at the time of their donations. Carter officials said they used total cholesterol because, when elevated, it is recognized as evidence of a major, reversible risk for heart disease.

The study tracked changes in the cholesterol levels of 1,198 teen donors in 2002 with the levels in the same volunteer donors five years later. Carter chose 200 mg/dL as the threshold for cardiovascular risk because values below that level are considered favorable.

When first tested in 2002, 129 young blood donors, or 10.8 percent of the group, had a total non-fasting cholesterol greater than 200.

On subsequent testing five years later, 276 donors, or 23 percent, had a total non-fasting cholesterol greater than 200.

The bottom line: Seventy percent of young donors experienced an increase over the five-year period.

The mini-physicals offered by Carter can be early indicators of a need for change in diet and exercise. Unfortunately, more than 67 percent of all people who donated blood in 2007 didn't bother to retrieve their cholesterol information, with young donors among the worst. In 2007, only 19 percent of donors ages 17 to 19 bothered to call or log in to Carter's confidential information system to retrieve their results.

The good news in this troubling phenomenon is that children, teens and young adults can change their habits to have a positive outcome. By reducing overall caloric intake, eating more fresh fruits and vegetables and increasing physical activity, the trend of cardiovascular disease can be reversed.

Parents are the key in working to assure that their children live longer, healthier lives than they did.

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—Fort Worth Star-Telegram