May 22 (UPI) -- Nearly half of children and teens in the United States have unhealthy cholesterol levels, and one quarter have clinically high levels, researchers report in a new study.
Despite the high rate of unhealthy cholesterol on youths in the U.S., researchers show in a study published Tuesday in JAMA that the new stats show cholesterol rates in young people have improved in the last two decades.
High cholesterol can start the build-up of atherosclerotic plaques in the arteries, and researchers say the build-up -- even in the early years of life -- can increase risk for heart attack later in adulthood.
"High cholesterol in childhood is one of the key risk factors for developing heart disease later in life," Marma Perak, a researcher at Northwestern University and study author, said in a news release. "Although we see favorable trends in all measures of cholesterol in children and adolescents over the years, we still need to work harder to ensure that many more kids have healthy cholesterol levels."
For the study, researchers analyzed data collected from 1999 to 2016 as part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys for 26,047 youths between ages 6 and 19. Among the participants, the mean age was 12.4 years old and 51 percent were female.
All participants were tested for levels of high-density lipoproteins, non-HDL, and total cholesterol, in addition to other lipid measurements.
Overall, 51 percent of participants were found to have ideal cholesterol levels, and 46.8 percent of adolescents -- children aged 12-19 -- had ideal levels. But, among cholesterol and lipid levels checked, 15.2 percent of children aged 6-11 and 25.2 percent of adolescents had at least one adverse lipid level.
In young people, ideal total cholesterol should be no higher than 170 milligrams per deciliter and LDL, or "bad cholesterol," should be under 110, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Also so-called "good cholesterol" should be higher than 45 milligrams per deciliter.
The researchers say childhood obesity is a factor for the high level of unhealthy cholesterol. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 19 percent of people between ages two and 19 are obese.
"If a child is found to have borderline-high or high levels of cholesterol, we can usually improve those levels through lifestyle changes, such as healthier diet and increased physical activity," Perak said.
"Although more efforts are needed, the fact that cholesterol levels are moving in the right direction warrant some optimism about the future cardiovascular health of our population since cholesterol is such an important driver for cardiovascular disease," Perak said.