Young boy outdoors in grass field

High cholesterol in kids? It doesn't seem possible, but unfortunately, it can happen. As many as one in five children are believed to have an abnormal cholesterol count. Most of these children, thankfully, are not out of the normal range by much.

Adults make up the overwhelming majority of patients who take cholesterol medication, however increasing numbers of children are being diagnosed with high cholesterol. By seeking medical care early, they have a great chance of lowering their risk for heart disease before they grow into adulthood.

Identifying the problem sooner than later will unquestionably pay off and can be a powerful guide for your child’s heart health. It’s also a lot easier for someone to change their lifestyle as a child or teenager rather than waiting until their 40s or 50s, especially when a simple cholesterol screening could help stave off serious heart disease or even death.

High cholesterol in children started getting more attention in 2011, the year that the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute and American Academic of Pediatrics recommended that children be screened for cholesterol by their primary care clinician between ages 9 and 11; and again between 17 and 21.

UW Health Pediatric Preventive Cardiology Clinic launched in 2011

That same year, UW Health launched its Pediatric Preventive Cardiology Clinic, led by Dr. Amy Peterson, a UW Health Kids cardiologist who specializes in preventive cardiology.

“Children with abnormal cholesterol have no symptoms, so it’s important that we screen them,” said Peterson. “What’s great is seeing kids take pride in themselves after their cholesterol numbers improve, once they make a few changes.

“We’ve also been working closely with our adult preventive cardiology counterparts to make the transition as seamless as possible so these kids continue to get care once they become adults.”

About 2,500 patients have been seen in the Pediatric Preventive Cardiology Clinic since it was formed, and roughly three out of four patients would never have been identified without having their cholesterol screened. The remaining 25 percent of patients were seen because of a family history of heart disease, such as a parent or grandparent with a heart attack or stroke.

Most children with high cholesterol acquire the condition over time, usually the result of unhealthy eating and/or a sedentary lifestyle of too much screen time and not enough physical activity.

About one in 250 are born with high cholesterol

A small number of kids, about one in 250 overall, are actually born with high cholesterol. This is due to a genetic condition known as familial hypercholesterolemia, or FH. It’s caused by a gene mutation that makes it impossible for the body to remove bad cholesterol, or LDL. Untreated, FH can lead to early heart attacks or heart disease, and the risk is 20 times higher than normal for such an event.

If your family has a history of heart disease, Peterson encourages your child to be screened for FH as early as age 2. If your little one happens to test positive, you’ll be grateful it was found early so treatment with cholesterol-lowering medication can begin before the damage from high cholesterol starts.

“FH is passed on through families, so once it is found in a child, it’s also important for family members to get screened,” Peterson said. “Estimates show that only about 10 to 20 percent of those with FH even know they have it because of low awareness among the public and even some physicians. Nobody wants to have FH, but thankfully the sooner we find out someone has it, the better our chances of reducing risk of serious problems later in life, thanks to a combination of cholesterol medication, smart eating and regular exercise.”