Teens Being Tested for Cholesterol

Monday, June 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BROOKLINE, Mass. (AP) — Bennett ``Beano'' Zylber makes no apologies for his sweet tooth. He likes candy, particularly gummy bears, and eats with barely a thought of the consequences. And why not? He's only 14.

Still, Beano was at Brookline High School recently, getting his finger pricked and his cholesterol level tested. It wasn't his idea, Beano said, crediting his mother, but doctors say it's a good one. Teens might have youth on their side, but genetics and diet could be against them when it comes to heart disease.

Dr. Laura Hemphill, who conducted the privately funded screening for the Boston Heart Foundation, said a predisposition to heart disease can be detected early. At-risk young people, she said, are like the Titanic.

``You may be ship-shape now, but the iceberg is out there,'' she said. ``The earlier you make small course adjustments, the better off you are.''

A genetic tendency toward heart disease can be detected at birth, in blood taken from umbilical cords, said Dr. Timothy Bricker, of Texas Children's Hospital and a spokesman for the American Heart Association.

Several studies also show that teens are not too young to suffer the physical effects of dangerously high cholesterol levels.

Autopsies of American soldiers killed during the Korean and Vietnam wars showed arterial blockage in veterans as young as 18. A 1997 study of the autopsies of young people showed fatty deposits in the major arteries of those with high cholesterol.

Some doctors think it's not necessary to test teens other than those with a family history of heart disease. Cholesterol levels can fluctuate wildly during puberty, which means high or low results could change with adulthood.

Bricker, however, thinks it's important to screen children early for heart disease — the nation's No. 1 killer — and to teach them ``heart healthy'' habits before they reach adolescence. The problem, he said, is that other teen risks grab the attention of public health officials.

One teen participating in the recent screening, Tracey Martin, 15, decided to get tested because her family has a history of heart problems. The screening had her thinking about her diet, something she said teen girls already hear too much about. But she said the low-cholesterol diet emphasizes health, not slenderness.

``I think it's natural for girls to want to be thin and healthy,'' she said. ``There's nothing wrong with being healthy.''

Included in the screening were doctor visits for teens found to be at risk. Early prevention can have huge cost benefits, Hemphill said. Even teens with genetic leanings toward heart disease can lower their risk with a good diet.

Whether they will is another question.

``They're immortal,'' Hemphill said, describing the typical teen mindset.

Ben Cooper, 15, admitted he eats whatever he wants, though tries to avoid eating at McDonald's more than once a day.

But he said he'd be willing to change his habits if he was convinced they were unhealthy. He rejected the notion that teens are too high on life to listen to advice on poor eating habits.

Teens will listen to adults, he said, ``If they yell at us enough.''