Heartbroke Kids: 8 year old, obese, and with heart disease

Kids sure grow fa(s)t these days. At age 8 they are overweight and showing signs of heart disease. By age 11 they will have been divorced twice, and before they reach the ripe old age of 15 they are slowly riding their heavy duty scooters all the way up to that big fat camp in the sky – where hilarity ensues every day like in the 1995 movie Heavyweights. Children nowadays seem to be pulling a reverse Jerry O’Connell and gaining weight faster than Jared Leto preparing to play Mark David Chapman in Chapter 27.  

A new study partly funded by the National Institutes of Health and presented at an American Heart Association meeting in Florida assessed 40 children (Children of the Corn Dog?) aged 8-16 from Kentucky – which might explain a lot, seeing as how Louisville is home to a well-known fast food restaurant chain that specializes in fried chicken – 20 of which were of normal weight, while the other 20 were clinically overweight. Tests included imaging scans such as MRIs. Sadly, the researchers didn’t throw in a good ol’ tug-o-war just for kicks and giggles. Team Skinny vs. Team Chubby would have been the greatest clash since Hogan vs. Andre at Wrestlemania III. That is a license to print money right there.

The imaging tests showed that “obese children had 27 percent more muscle mass in the left ventricle of their hearts and 12 percent thicker heart muscles - both signs of heart disease - compared to normal weight children,” the Geisinger Health System in Danville, Pennsylvania said in a statement. Lead author and cardiac researcher at the Geisinger Linyuan Jing said that “this evidence of cardiac remodeling was present in obese children as young as age 8” – so young, in fact, that when they were told they had big hearts, they thought it was a compliment. “This was surprising and alarming to us,” Jing added. “At such a young age, [they] already developed clear evidence of heart disease,” including heart muscle abnormalities and signs of impaired heart function. “This implies that obese children even younger than 8 years old likely have signs of heart disease too.”

To compound matters, Jing explained that “the actual burden of heart disease in obese children may have been ­under­-estimated in our study because the largest kids who may have been the most severely affected could not be enrolled” because the study did not include children with diabetes or who were too big to fit inside the magnetic resonance scanner. That’s true, by the way; you just can’t make this stuff up. Notwithstanding the fact that the children in the study didn’t have diabetes, some did present other conditions related to obesity such as asthma, hypertension, and depression – though none of them showed fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath, and other warnings signs of heart disease.

Nevertheless, in 40% of the overweight children decreased heart capacity had already turned into a decreased ability to pump blood, putting them in the high risk for adult cardiac strain and heart disease category – talk about being tried as an adult. Changes in heart muscle mass “suggest a significant increase in risk of heart failure, arrhythmia [irregular heartbeat] and premature cardiovascular death in children with obesity," said professor of cardiology at the University of California Gregg Fonarow, who was not involved with the study but called it “alarming.” He added that the structural heart changes shown by the scans are related to more complex health conditions and early death in adults.

According to chairman of the pediatrics department at the University of Colorado School of Medicine Stephen Daniels, this is not the first study to look at the effects of childhood obesity in the heart. However, “it reinforces the concept that obesity has negative impact on cardiovascular system and shows that it can happen at a young age,” said Daniels. “We look at overweight kids, and for the most part, they seem healthy and don’t feel bad. But beneath the surface, there are things going on that are not good for their health.” Moreover, Jing clarified that “this is only a preliminary study. ... We definitely want to confirm our findings in a larger, longitudinal study with more children.” Jing is helping to recruit 200 subjects for years-long follow-up study – or failing that, a children’s crusade into the Holy Land – to establish what's driving the cardiac changes in obese children and whether they are reversible in time.

Well, if they’re looking for culprits, we personally credit all these pop stars who have let themselves go, like Elvis and Axl (these are the people that today’s youth looks up to, right?). Jing, however, took a more conventional approach and said that parents have a duty to help their children keep a healthy weight – providing healthy food and beverages instead of junk food and fruit juice, and limiting TV, computer, and video game time – presumably so that kids stage a hunger strike – and promoting outdoor activities. “In addition, schools and communities need to do a better job at educating both the parents and children about the health risks of overweight and obesity,” Jing said. “This should be further motivation for parents to help children lead a healthy lifestyle.” And if all else fails, parents can always organize an intervention. Preferably one with Oompa-Loompas. Those songs are very persuasive.

Related: Are Artificial Sweeteners to blame for Obesity Epidemic?