When the American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidelines this week, recommending some children as young as 8 take cholesterol-fighting drugs to ward off future heart problems, you knew there'd be an uproar.
Apparently, drug treatment would generally be targeted for kids who have too much LDL, the "bad" cholesterol, along with other risky conditions, including obesity and high blood pressure. I should hope that natural measures to reverse a kid's high cholesterol would come first. But even so, wouldn't the faux safety net created by the availability and push to use drugs for high cholesterol make it too easy for kids to have their cake and eat it, too?
After all, plenty of adults down statins regularly and shine off healthy eating because they know a cheeseburger and steak can't fool a statin. In other words, statins are so powerful at lowering cholesterol despite the diet, people can keep eating however they want and maintain a "healthy" cholesterol level. No wonder statins are among the top prescribed drugs in America now. So imagine a 10-year-old who loves his fast food and who knows he can get away with it if he pops his pills. (He may still be pudgy, but I won't even entertain the thought of young kids resorting to diet pills, too.)
One of the arguments for the drugs is the fact damage leading to heart disease, our #1 killer, begins early in life. And according to Dr. Stephen Daniels, who is on the AAP's nutrition committee and was quoted in The Associated Press's article, "If we are more aggressive about this in childhood, I think we can have an impact on what happens later in life... and avoid some of these heart attacks and strokes in adulthood."
Let me just stop right there. I think the word "aggressive" should relate to educating parents and young people about nutrition and exercise, don't you? The goal should be to prevent high cholesterol to begin with. I think we can "have an impact on what happens later in life" if we teach our kids healthy eating and how to maintain an active, balanced lifestyle.
Granted, some people may be genetically prone to high cholesterol, but I'd bet that many of the targeted kids in this new recommendation would do well to re-establish better habits. It's been proven that we are more under the influence of our lifestyles than our genetics (in fact, as much as 80 percent of our health and longevity is attributed to lifestyle--not our DNA).
Heart Disease and Lifestyle Changes
Now here's where my sleep doctoring comes into play.
Healthy lifestyles are hard to come by these days among our youth. They are overeating high-fat, processed foods; they are attached to their electronic devices that may speed up their communications, but at the same time tremendously slow down their physical bodies on the activity meter. They stay up later and later to fit in homework and fulfill social needs (like e-mailing, chatting on cell phones, playing video games, and Web surfing). Now not every 8-year-old may have a cell phone (God forbid!), but the socialization among younger folks has gotten much more sophisticated that it was for my generation.
Barring congenital defects and serious illnesses, a kid isn't likely to die of heart disease. Avoiding the heart troubles later in life happens when you establish the habits early on about how to live well. This sets a kid up for success. Dishing out statins like candy might have the opposite effect--encouraging bad habits because they go unnoticed when statins do their thing.
I also want to point out how powerful lifestyle changes can be. Time and time again we've seen how a shift in how one eats, exercises, and sleeps can bring monumental change to one's physical self. Statins are not the answer to a life out of balance. I don't care how old or young you are.
If you don't believe me, then try the following boot camp formula for 10 days and watch what happens (test your cholesterol before and after; and for that matter, check your weight and energy levels, too):
10-Day Boot Camp for a Healthier Lifestyle
- Avoid processed foods, fast food, refined sugar, hydrogenated fats, and white flour. Go organic wherever possible.
- Schedule at least 30 minutes of physical exercise at least 7 of those 10 days. If you can, do 60 minutes total on your exercise days.
- Cut out all soda and juices. Opt for plain water or sparkling mineral water.
- Do not consume any caffeine after 2 p.m. in the afternoon. Minimize or avoid alcohol.
- Set strict boundaries between work and play. Avoid work within two hours of bed, including household chores, and leave one weekend day for goofing off.
- Get however much sleep you need each night to feel refreshed the next day; go to bed and rise at the same exact time each day--weekends included.
You can create a version of this boot camp for your kids, too, and put them up to the challenge. Watch the transformation. Now that's a quick fix.
Follow Dr. Michael J. Breus on Twitter: www.twitter.com/thesleepdoctor