Weather Updates

Study: Teens in greater danger of heart disease

Special School Helps Kids CombChildhood Obesity

Special School Helps Kids Combat Childhood Obesity

storyidforme: 21386554
tmspicid: 8057075
fileheaderid: 3622679

Updated: December 18, 2011 5:25PM

When Vince Carter started teaching math 35 years ago, there was one surefire way to get every student to enthusiastically raise an arm.

“If you needed someone to move some boxes down the corridor, they’d all volunteer just to get out of class,” the Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center teacher recalls with a laugh.

“Nowadays, they’d only do it if the boxes were full of $100 bills — they’d rather sit in their chairs.

“Kids got lazy!”

It’s a symptom — and cause — of the national childhood obesity epidemic that first lady Michelle Obama has made it a personal priority to battle, and one that many parents of smartphone, video game and television-obsessed teenagers will likely recognize.

But teens’ increasingly poor diets and sedentary lifestyles have now reached the point where the U.S. is losing the battle against heart disease for the first time in more than 40 years, according to the authors of a major Northwestern University study released Wednesday.

“We are all born with ideal cardiovascular health, but right now we are looking at the loss of that health in youth,” said Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones, an associate professor at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine who led the study. “Their future is bleak.”

The study looked at 5,547 children nationwide ages 12 to 19. Not one child among them ate a diet that met all five of the American Heart Association’s criteria for being healthy, Lloyd-Jones said. The kids ate too much salt, drank too much sugary pop and did not get enough fresh fruit, vegetables, fiber or protein, he added.

More than one in three are overweight or obese and have high blood sugar, putting them at high risk of developing type 2 diabetes, the study found. Less than half got enough exercise.

The findings matter, because cardiovascular damage “that kills us in our 40s and 50s starts to form in adolescence and young adulthood,” Lloyd-Jones said.

An increasing cardiovascular mortality rate in 35- to 44-year-olds, which had been decreasing for decades but is now once again on the rise, shows the effects teenagers’ lifestyle choices are already having, Lloyd-Jones said.

He noted with displeasure Congress’ failure this week to tighten school meal nutrition standards, describing the pizza and french fry-laden diets of youths as the single largest obstacle to healthy hearts. Though the AHA’s ideal criteria are so strict that only a tiny percentage of adults meet them, even smaller diet changes can make a big difference to teenagers’ chances of later having heart problems, he said.

The study’s results did not surprise former gym teacher Paul Zientarski, who helped devise a pioneering approach to health and physical education at Madison Junior High in Naperville in the 1990s.

Students at Madison and other schools in district 203 use heart-rate monitors to individually tailor workout regimens, focus less on competitive sports at which a handful of top athletes dominate, and are offered free heart exams. Their school cafeterias contain no fried foods or sugary drinks. By last year, less than 9 percent of students there were overweight — way below the national average — said Zientarski, who now works as a consultant.

Though the approach has won plaudits, been linked to increased academic performance and spread to other states, a narrow focus on test scores means “many schools feel they do not have the time or resources to tackle this,” he said.

“Schools can’t be expected to do this on their own — parents have to get involved,” he added.

It’s a message echoed by Oak Park-River Forest High School Athletic director John Stelzer.

“When we were kids our parents had to call us in,” he tells moms and dads attending parent evenings. “Now we have to push our kids out the door.”

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.