Unfit teenagers show evidence of early cardiovascular disease. A new study, soon to be published, provides evidence on a link between poor fitness levels and the development of cardiovascular disease in Irish teenagers. It shows increased cardiac risk factors and, more worryingly, evidence of blood vessel disease in those teens with lower fitness levels.
The research conducted by Dr Sinead Sheridan of DCU was interesting in that it used fitness, rather than weight, (measured by a ‘bleep’ running test) to classify transition year students. There were three groups; low, medium and high fitness levels. These initial groups were then followed up and studied more intensively with information collected on weight, blood pressure, oxygen use during exercise and fat levels in the blood.
An ultrasound was also used to look for narrowing in the main artery in the neck (the carotid artery). This was novel in that it allowed the study to show evidence of actual changes in the blood vessels rather than just risk factors.
The results are quite alarming. The level of fitness of the teenagers correlated with the presence of cardiovascular risk factors and more importantly actual blood vessel disease.
Of those identified as unfit 90% were also classified as overweight or obese. Those who were unfit also showed abnormalities in their blood tests. With 90% showing high levels of fat in their blood and 62% being at high risk of diabetes. 85% of the unfit teenagers had high blood pressure. Along with smoking these are all the key risk factors for developing heart disease or stroke.
However, the study went one step further and identified, with ultrasound, that 87% of these teenagers had the vascular age of a person aged 55 – 60. It establishes that our sedentary lifestyle – beginning in childhood is causing actual disease to occur at a much younger age than ever seen before. Imagine a generation where stroke or heart attack is not uncommon by age 30-40.
Previous studies have shown that fitness levels and participation in sport decreases as children move into the teenage years. This trend tends to be worse in girls than boys. In the study those who had high fitness tended to have normal weight and did not suffer from the cardiac risk factors or evidence of disease. The importance of starting, and maintaining, an interest in sport and activity at a young age is crucial. With the rise of technology, life for children is becoming more sedentary than ever. Education is needed regarding the importance of developing lifelong positive eating and fitness habits. It is a lot easier to start the right way than to make changes once poor choices have become routine. This needs to involve families and children themselves.
The study also throws open for debate the possible use of ‘bleep’ exercise tests as a cheap and easy screening tool in schools. One that can then be repeating to capture improvement over time in students who may need extra support with their fitness levels. It lays down the gauntlet for both schools, students and parents alike to rise to this, often emotive, challenge rather than shying away from a problem that may devastate the health of a generation.