We know that atherosclerosis begins in childhood, but are children with an unhealthy lifestyle invariably going to suffer from atherosclerosis as they get older? Nobody is sure…
A Finnish group of researchers has therefore started to follow-up risk factors in young people. The first survey was done in 1980, when they examined 3596 youngsters between 3 and 18 year old. The same group was then re-examined in 1983, 1986, 2001 and 2007. The researchers measured the usual risk factors such BMI, blood lipids and blood pressure, and asked about their diet and exercise habits.
In 2001 and 2007, the researchers also determined the wall thickness and elasticity of the youngsters’ arteries. Wall thickness and elasticity (or stiffness) are two different signs of vascular aging, and both of them are probably very early stages of the disease. As yet, we do not know which one is more important.
By comparing the evolution of arterial wall thickness and elasticity with risk factors, we can determine if a child’s lifestyle influences its risk of cardiovascular disease later in life.
In their latest article (April 2014) the Finnish group published their findings concerning the association of exercise in childhood or adolescence and the elasticity of the carotid arteries 21 years later. The carotid arteries are situated in the front of your neck and supply your head and neck with oxygenated blood. They are rather important, as your risk of stroke increases if they narrow due to atherosclerosis!
They noticed that exercise in children and adolescents was associated with an increased arterial elasticity in 30 to 34 year old adults. This was independent of other factors such as BMI, blood lipids or insulin levels. They concluded that it pays off to be an active kid.
This confirms a similar study published in 2010 by Roel van de Laar and his colleagues. They followed 600 boys and girls during 24 years, and noticed that adolescent and young adults involved in vigorous physical exercise had more elastic arteries at the age of 36 than those who performed only easy or moderate workouts.
They also noticed that those who kept exercising vigorously in adulthood had a much better elasticity than those who slowed down. The difference in elasticity went hand in hand with other risk factors such as cholesterol levels, resting heart rate, cardio respiratory fitness…
They concluded that we should keep exercising vigorously as we get older to keep our arteries healthy.
The Finnish group also compared the classical risk factors (exercise, diet, BMI, cholesterol, blood pressure blood glucose levels…) with the thickness of the arterial wall. They noticed that childhood risk factors became non-significant compared to adult ones, except for physical activity and fruit consumption.
This means that if somebody has unfavourable cholesterol levels or is obese as a child, but corrects this as an adult, the arterial wall thickness is not worse than that of somebody who was not obese or did not have bad cholesterol levels as a child.
For fruit consumption and physical exercise however, this seems not to be true. Eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly as a child is thus important for your arteries.
What does this mean for me?
If you are lucky enough to have exercised and eaten a healthy diet as a child, your arteries are likely to be healthy. This is not a reason to stop taking care of yourself, as Roel van de Laar’s study shows that we should continue exercising vigorously.
Vigorous exercise is of course different for each of us. What feels like running hard for me is maybe only a jog for you. Only you can know what vigorous exercise is for you. Don’t forget either that nobody exercises vigorously every day. If you are in doubt, you should contact a health or fitness professional.
Even though exercising as an adult might not totally reverse the lack of exercise as a youngster, it will help you to keep all other risk factors under control. Moreover, your health depends on much more than the thickness or elasticity of your arterial walls. Exercise will reduce your risk of many diseases, such as diabetes, Alzheimer and some cancers. It is therefore never too late to start!
The Finnish study is ongoing, and that is a good thing as there are plenty of questions left. For example: what happens to those of us who are active as a child and adolescent, abandon sport to raise a family, and start training again when life becomes less busy?
Disclaimer: this article is for general information only, and does not replace medical advice. It cannot be used to diagnose or guide treatment. If you have any concerns or questions, you should talk to a qualified health provider.
Juonala M, Viikaril J S A, Kahonen M et al. Life-time risk factors and progression of carotid atherosclerosis in young adults: the cardiovascular risk in young Finns study. Eur Heart J 2010; 31(14): 1745-1751.
Palve KS, Pahkala K, Magnussen CG et al. Association of physical activity in childhood and early adulthood with carotid artery elasticity 21 years later: the cardiovascular risk in young Finns study. J Am. Heart Assoc. 2014; 3(2): e000594. doi: 10.1161/JAHA.113.000594.
Van de Laar RJ, Ferreira I, van Mechelen W et al. Lifetime vigorous but not light-to-moderate habitual physical activity impacts favorably on carotid stiffness in young adults: the Amsterdam growth and health longitudinal study. Hypertension 2010; 55(1): 33-39.