The bodies of overweight kids as young as 3 are already displaying warning signs of future cardiovascular disease, according to recent study findings from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill and published in the journal Pediatrics.

During the study, researchers discovered increased levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) in obese children. The liver produces more of this protein when inflammation is present in the body, which is a marker for future heart problems.

The study also showed high levels of two additional symptoms of inflammation in children ages 6 to 9.

“We’re seeing a relationship between weight status and elevated inflammatory markers much earlier than we expected,” said Asheley Cockrell Skinner, PhD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the university’s school of medicine and the study’s lead author.

For the study, scientists evaluated data gathered from a nationwide survey of 16,000 kids ages 1 to 17 done over a seven-year period (1999 to 2006).

Researchers grouped children into three categories: overweight (about 15 percent), obese (11 percent) and very obese (3.5 percent).

The results showed that more than 40 percent of the obese kids ages 3 to 5 had elevated CRP, compared with about 17 percent of healthy weight children the same age. Among adolescents ages 15 to 17, the study found that 83 percent of the very obese had elevated CRP compared with 18 percent of their healthy weight counterparts.

Childhood obesity is the No. 1 health concern among parents in the United States, according to the American Heart Association, and obesity is creating a huge problem for kids. Many are affected by a broad range of health problems that doctors previously only saw in adults.

“Most adults understand that being overweight or obese isn’t good for them,” Skinner said. “But not as many people realize that it may be unhealthy for young children to be overweight.”

Although researchers agreed that more work needs to take place before the study’s full implications are realized, Eliana Perrin, MD, MPH, the study’s coauthor, says one thing is clear right now.

“This study tells us that very young, obese children already have more inflammation than children who are not obese, and that’s very concerning,” Perrin said. “It may help motivate us as physicians and parents to take obesity at younger ages more seriously.”

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