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Atherosclerosis has been demonstrated in autopsy studies to have its origins in childhood.1 In the young, there is a correlation between the intensity of exposure to risk factors such as cigarette smoking, hypertension, dyslipidaemia and diabetes mellitus and the extent and severity of arterial fatty streaks or raised plaques (fig 1).
An important current trend that may increase the future burden of coronary heart disease (CHD) is a significant increase in the prevalence of childhood obesity.2 In obesity, many of the risk factors for CHD are clustered together. Moreover, these risk factors usually persist or track into adulthood, so that their effect on the cardiovascular system may be present and influential for several decades.
To reduce the future burden of CHD, we need to define prevention and intervention strategies that decrease the prevalence of cardiovascular risk factors in children and young adults and thereby hope to retard atherogenic processes. The purpose of this article is to review the evidence for the importance of the childhood risk factors for adult cardiovascular disease and to outline the evidence for the efficacy of primary prevention in young people.
DETECTING EARLY ARTERIAL ABNORMALITIES
Studies on the impact of risk factors in childhood and on the effect of potentially beneficial interventions have been facilitated by the development of a number of non-invasive diagnostic techniques that can detect “atherosclerosis” at a preclinical stage (or at least the changes in arterial structure and/or function indicative of vascular damage). For example, the arterial endothelium plays a key role in atherogenesis, and clinical evaluation of the function of the endothelium is now possible through the assessment of nitric oxide-mediated vasodilatation produced by sheer stress (flow mediated dilatation (FMD)). FMD can be measured …