When should prevention of atherosclerosis start?

I have three children, one boy, 13 and two girls, 10 and 11. As far as I’m concerned prevention of atherosclerosis should begin as early as possible. That means yesterday. However, I understand that there exists some uncertainty of exactly what age to begin prevention. It has to do partly with juvenile fatty streaks. What may appear unimaginable is that the occurrence of juvenile fatty streaks somehow may have an importance in child development.

Most North American children develop fatty streaks in their aortas by age 3 and in coronary arteries along with macrophage foam cells by age 10 (1); by the time children are reaching puberty, they may already have developed fatty streak lesions. Fatty streaks are nothing new. As offered by McGill et al, our hominin forebears likely developed them as do current non-human Old and New World primates even when living in natural habitats. Studies of other mammals reveal that many of them also develop fatty streaks.

From an evolutionary perspective, then, fatty streaks may have provided a selective advantage to pre-human or human ancestors. Or, as in most cases, there are “trade-offs” in evolution. What may have been a cause of poor health in the long run for human ancestors may have been important part of early development. Fats and calories, for example, may have helped a child’s brain or muscle development (3). It also stands to reason that while fatty streaks are normal, they may not necessarily lead to atherosclerosis. Wild mice develop fatty streaks, for example, but won’t develop lesions. Caged mice on a high-fat/cholesterol diet, however, will develop lesions and atherosclerosis as they age (2). When comparisons are given of mice and men (or women), our modern “caged” sedentary lifestyles and high-fat/cholesterol diets suggest humans are a burden to their own health.

Long-range prevention, then, should be focused on encouraging an improved diet early. How early? The American Heart Association’s guidelines suggest starting children on a widely varied diet low in fat and calories by age 2 (4). The amounts of fats and calories, however, must take child development into consideration. Even once children reach puberty this should be the case. As with my own children, who I have on a Mediterranean-style DASH diet rich in fats from olive oil and fish, it is important to give the body a holistic approach.

Reference List

1. McGill HC, Jr., McMahan CA, Herderick EE, Malcom GT, Tracy RE, Strong JP. Origin of atherosclerosis in childhood and adolescence. Am J Clin Nutr 2000;72:1307S-15S.
2. Li Y, Gilbert TR, Matsumoto AH, Shi W. Effect of aging on fatty streak formation in a diet-induced mouse model of atherosclerosis. J Vasc Res 2008;45:205-10.
3. Mitchell MK. Nutrition Across the Life Span. “Chapter 9: Nutrition During Growth: Preschool through Preadolescence”. Second Edition. Waveland Press: Long Grove, Illinois, 2003, pp. 271-300.
4. Lee RD, Nieman DC. Nutritional Assessment. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.

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