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Obese Children Have Stiff Arteries, a Feature of Atherosclerosis


Researchers at the Medical College of Georgia have found that children with more body fat and less endurance have stiffer arteries at a very young age. Stiff arteries are a hallmark feature of atherosclerosis, a condition in which fat can collect along the walls of the arteries and can eventually block the vessel, leading to heart attack or stroke.

Dr. Catherine L. Davis, clinical health psychologist in MCG’s Georgia Prevention Institute and lead study author, presented the findings at the 31st Annual Society of Behavioral Medicine Meeting and at the American Heart Association’s Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Metabolism Conference in March.

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The study, funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, involved overweight or obese 8 to 11 year olds. All participated in a study of their arteries using a non-invasive technique called pulse wave velocity (PWV). PWV is a measure of arterial stiffness and has a strong correlation with cardiovascular events and mortality. During each heart beat, a pulse wave travels from the heart down the arterial wall in advance of blood flow. The more rigid the wall of the artery, the faster the wave moves, leading to changes in blood pressure readings.

The children who were more sedentary and had more body fat had stiffer central arteries compared to those who were more active in after school activities such as jumping rope or playing basketball.
Regular exercise decreases metabolic risks that are associated with cardiovascular disease and diabetes. These include reducing inflammation, reduction of visceral fat (the fat located around the abdominal organs), and insulin levels. Children who exercise just 20 to 40 minutes a day for 12 weeks showed improvement on virtually on measures.

A serious liver condition that affects about 40% of obese children, called nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, is also associated with hardening of the arteries. NAFLD can lead to inflammation and scarring, resulting in liver damage and failure. The researchers will use further studies to determine if exercise can also help in the prevention and treatment of NAFLD.

*April 17th is YMCA's Healthy Kids Day, an initiative to get children and families more active.