What’s happening inside the bodies of children who carry around so much excess fat that they have become categorically obese in the eyes of pediatricians? In an effort to see the inner workings of these kids’ bodies, researchers from Geisinger Health System conducted a study involving body scans. Their findings, presented at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2015, revealed children as young as 8 years old can have “significant” signs of heart disease and damage.

"Parents should be highly motivated to help their children maintain a healthy weight," said the study’s lead author Linyuan Jing, a researcher at Geisinger Health System in Danville, Pa., in a press release. "Ultimately we hope that the effects we see in the hearts of these children are reversible; however, it is possible that there could be permanent damage. This should be further motivation for parents to help children lead a healthy lifestyle."

For the study, Jing and her colleagues used magnetic resonance imaging to scan the hearts of 20 obese children and 20 normal-weight children. They found the obese children had 27 percent more muscle mass in their hearts’ left ventricles and 12 percent thicker heart muscles. Both are signs of heart disease. Forty percent of the obese children’s hearts were in such bad shape that they were labeled “high-risk,” which indicated to pediatricians their heart-pumping ability could be impaired.

According to researchers, heart problems during childhood often lead to premature death from heart disease. Regardless of age, extra fat makes a person more likely to have high blood pressure and high cholesterol, both of which make heart disease and stroke more likely.

Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents over the past 30 years. And it’s likely that without lifestyle changes, an obese child will become an obese adult. Aside from obese kids’ risk for heart disease, they’re also more likely to be prediabetic, have bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and poor self-esteem. Without lifestyle changes, they could carry these issues for the rest of their lives.

"The actual burden of heart disease in obese children may have been ­under­estimated in our study because the largest kids who may have been the most severely affected could not be enrolled," Jing said. "This implies that obese children even younger than 8 years old likely have signs of heart disease too. This was alarming to us. Understanding the long-term ramifications of this will be critical as we deal with the impact of the pediatric obesity epidemic."

Source: Jing L, Friday CM, Suever JD, et al. American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2015. 2015.