Babies and children * Young people * Healthy living

6 year olds show signs of future heart disease

Couch potato six-year-olds show signs of future heart disease Screen time linked to heart disease risk

Children as young as six who spend too much time watching television or playing computer games already show early warning signs of future heart disease, a study has found.

Researchers found that children who spent the most time watching television, using a computer or playing video games had narrower arteries in the back of their eyes, an indicator of future heart disease risk.

On average, the retinal arteries of children who did the most physical activity - more than an hour a day - were 2.2 microns wider than those who did the least, 30 minutes a day.

Too much screen time was associated with an average narrowing of the retinal arteries of 2.3 microns. A micron is one thousandth of a millimetre or one-25th of a thousandth of an inch.

More than 1,400 six and seven year olds in 34 primary schools in Sydney, Australia, took part in the study. Parents filled in detailed questionnaires on the number of hours a week their child spent in physical and sedentary activity.

The researchers from the University of Sydney also took digital photographs of the retinal arteries at the back of the eye, to help calculate their width.

Each hour of screen time was the equivalent to a 10mmhg increase in blood pressure in children, the researchers said.

"We found that children with a high level of physical activity had a more beneficial microvascular profile compared to those with the lowest levels of physical activity," said Dr Bamini Gopinath, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Vision Research, who led the study.

"This suggests that unhealthy lifestyle factors may influence microcirculation early in life and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and hypertension later in life."

He also added that too much screen time leads to less physical activity, unhealthy dietary habits and weight gain.

"Replacing one hour a day of screen time with physical activity could be effective in buffering the effects of sedentariness on the retinal microvasculature in children.

"Free play should be promoted and schools should have a mandatory two hours a week in physical activity for children.

"Parents need to get their children up and moving and off the couch. Parents can also lead the way by being more physically active themselves," he said.

The study findings are published in the journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology.

This article was published on Thu 21 April 2011

Image © Ivonne Wierink -

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