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Obese Children Prone to Heart Attacks and Stroke as Adults - 2004-09-26

World Heart Day is focusing on life-threatening risks of obesity in children. The World Health Organization and World Heart Federation warn, overweight children are three-to-five times more likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke before they reach the age of 65.

The World Heart Federation says children are increasingly adopting unhealthy lifestyles. It says the leading causes of heart disease and stroke, namely, obesity, poor diet, smoking and physical inactivity now are being seen at an alarmingly early age.

The Federation's executive director, Janet Voute, says action must be taken to protect children from these risks.

"All of these can lead to premature death from heart disease and stroke," she said. "And, it is critical to future generations that each country find the political will and resources to tackle the cardiovascular disease epidemic right now. Governments are badly neglecting a preventable public health crisis. And, it will cripple already over-stretched health systems in the future."

The World Health Organization reports heart disease and stroke kill 17 million people a year. This is almost one-third of all deaths globally. By 2020, it predicts, these twin diseases will become the leading causes of both death and disability worldwide. The WHO warns the number of fatalities will increase to more than 24 million a year by 2030, if preventive measures are not taken now.

Judith Mackay is a senior policy advisor at WHO and co-author of a guide to cardiovascular disease. She says developing countries have adopted unhealthy western lifestyles and now account for 75 percent of heart disease. She says there are warning signs of growing obesity among young people in Asia.

Ms. Mackay says, data, which is particularly good in China and Japan, show that weight and cholesterol levels are on the rise. She says risk factors that lead to cardiovascular disease start in childhood everywhere in the world.

"Worldwide, 18 million children under five-years old are overweight, 18 million children overweight," she said. "And, 14 percent of 13- to 15-year olds around the world currently smoke cigarettes. In fact, what they have found doing post-mortems on children who die of accidents are that, even children as young as two have fatty cholesterol streaks in their arteries. So, it is not true to say that children are somehow protected until they are 15- or 20-years old."

The World Health Organization says the lifestyle people adopt when they are children will determine whether they are future candidates for cardiovascular disease. It says children and adolescents who have balanced, nutritious diets, exercise regularly and resist the pressure to start smoking, should grow into fit, healthy adults.