Cholesterol levels are improving for American kids and teens, study shows

A girl squirts lemon onto a plate of fish. A new study reports that cholesterol levels of American children and adolescents improved between 1999 and 2016.
(Getty images)

Cholesterol levels in children and teens have improved, according to the latest analysis of U.S. health surveys, yet only half of them had readings considered ideal.

Overall, 7% of kids had high cholesterol in surveys from 2009-16. That was down from 10% a decade earlier. In children, high levels mean 200 or above and ideal measures are below 170.

The results were published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Assn.

The researchers say the mixed bag of results could reflect stubborn rates of childhood obesity, offset by U.S. kids eating fewer snack foods containing unhealthy trans fats. Manufacturers began phasing those out before a 2018 U.S. ban.

FDA says trans fats are not safe and must be removed from food supply »


For the study, researchers analyzed data from more than 26,000 kids ages 6 to 19 who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 2009 and 2016. The survey, which is conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, includes home interviews, physical exams and lab tests.

About 1 in 4 teens and 1 in 5 younger children had unhealthy levels of at least one of type of blood fat, including low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and triglycerides.

High cholesterol in childhood can lead to changes that cause blood vessels to narrow, said Dr. Amanda Perak, the study’s lead author and a heart specialist at Chicago’s Lurie Children’s Hospital. Those changes put kids at risk for heart attacks and other heart trouble in adulthood, she said.

In most cases, kids can improve cholesterol levels by adopting healthier habits, such as eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, cutting back on processed foods, and exercising more, Perak said.

“Lifestyle contributes in the vast majority of cases,” she said.

Obesity contributes to unhealthy cholesterol levels, and rates have remained stagnant for U.S. kids and adults. In 2015-16, 21% of teens, 18% of children ages 6 to 11, and 40% of adults were obese, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.