Catch it while you can: Test helps improve teen health

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The current generation of adolescents is projected to have a shorter lifespan than their parents for the first time since the Civil War, so a University of Virginia pediatrician and his collaborators have developed a test to determine the future risk of heart disease in kids between the ages of 13 and 19.

“A significant number of teens are at risk for early onset diabetes,” Dr. Mark DeBoer of the UVA Children’s Hospital says. “This [test] is something that can be used to motivate a teen and family to make some changes and try to turn that around.”

While taking into account a teen’s race and gender, the test gives each person a metabolic score by evaluating each individual’s severity of the metabolic syndrome—a combination of conditions including increased blood pressure, high levels of blood sugar, excessive body fat and abnormal cholesterol levels, which increase the threat of cardiovascular disease.

The score is determined by entering several measures into a formula, including a teen’s body mass index, systolic blood pressure and results from three blood tests. That number shows how far the individual is from the average person.

The score is linear, too, so it can be followed over time—DeBoer says this is helpful because it can help kids and families set goals. For instance, he says he might ask a patient to start exercising four times a week and cutting out sugary drinks and see if his or her score improves. A perfect score is zero.

According to DeBoer, the overall goal of the test is to improve the health of entire families. “The key thing is that families be thoughtful about making healthy choices,” he says.

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