In W.Va. 5th-graders, blood pressure, cholesterol, obesity fall
LEARN MORE: Want to know more about CARDIAC? West Virginia University's unique, nationally-praised CARDIAC project has screened fifth-graders for obesity, blood pressure and cholesterol levels for 14 years. They have screened kindergartners and second-graders for obesity level only for seven years and are starting to screen middle-schoolers. All children are screened for the AN diabetes risk marker. Complete charts are here.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The percentage of West Virginia fifth-graders with high blood pressure dropped significantly in 2011-12, according to measurements by West Virginia University's CARDIAC program.
So did the percentage of fifth-graders with abnormal cholesterol.
"This is fantastic news," said Dr. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, a physician and chairman of the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee. "We may be at a tipping point for child obesity."
"Obesity, blood pressure and cholesterol are closely related," he said. When people exercise and become more fit, blood pressure and cholesterol usually drop, and obesity is likely to follow suit, he said.
The fifth-grade obesity rate nosed downward to 27.8 percent. The kindergarten obesity rate also dropped sharply to its lowest rate in nine years, 13.6 percent.
The CARDIAC program screens fifth-graders, second-graders and kindergartners statewide each year.
In 2010-11, one in every four fifth-graders screened had high blood pressure. In 2011-12, the number with high blood pressure dropped to one in five for the first time in CARDIAC's 14-year history.
Dr. Bill Neal, CARDIAC program director, cited the school system's statewide campaign to improve school meals and get children more active. "If the schools keep up their efforts to improve nutrition and increase physical activity, I expect we'll see significant drops in obesity next year," he said.
Children with high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol and/or obesity are at high risk of future diabetes, heart disease and other costly chronic illnesses, Neal cautioned, so West Virginia still has reason to worry.
"This is cause to hope and reason to keep trying," he said. "If these numbers are still down next year, we'll know it's a genuine trend. So this is no time to ease off in our efforts.
"It's important to remember that one in five 11-year-olds with high blood pressure is still very alarming," he said. "We can't get complacent. But the numbers are going in the right direction."
A drop in child obesity -- or obesity at any age -- would be very good news for the state budget, Stollings said. Seven out of 10 state health-care dollars already pay for obesity-related chronic diseases, according to an analysis health-care economist Ken Thorpe did for the Legislature.
Thorpe predicted the state's health-care costs will double by 2020 if the spread of obesity cannot be stopped.
"If we can get kids healthier, we're turning off the spigot, where diabetes and other chronic illness is concerned," Stollings said. "We can't do as much about the water in the pipelines, but if we can turn off the spigot, we're making big progress."
CARDIAC has been screening in the schools statewide since 1998. "High blood pressure" means the child's blood pressure is higher than 95 percent of children in a national sample.
• In the 2010-11 school year, 24 percent of fifth-graders screened had high blood pressure, one in four. In 2011-12, that dropped to 20.3, one in five.
• In 2010-11, 26.1 percent had abnormal cholesterol. In 2011-12, that number dropped to 23.5 percent, a 10 percent decrease.
• The fifth-grade obesity rate edged down from 28.9 to 27.8 percent.
The kindergarten obesity rate dropped from 17.5 percent of children screened to 13.6 percent, which puts it below the national average.
The second-grade obesity rate climbed a point, to 24.5 percent of children screened. "We'd like to bring that down too," said Rick Goff, director of the state Office of Child Nutrition. "The drop in the other numbers shows us we can."
In 2011-12, while the numbers were dropping, the school system was increasing physical activity and improving the nutritional quality of meals statewide. School cooks in 26 counties were trained to cook from scratch. Processed food served in the schools dropped sharply, Goff said.
Then-Superintendent Jorea Marple spearheaded a statewide push to get kids more physically active. "She deserves a lot of credit for that," Neal said, "and I'm happy to hear the new superintendent will continue the push."
"I supported it as a county superintendent and will support it as state superintendent," new superintendent James Phares told the Gazette-Mail.
Increasing numbers of parents are also becoming aware of the health risks of obesity, inactivity and junk food, said Stephen Smith, director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. "We've done 42 community meetings statewide, and children's health is a top priority everywhere. People keep saying kids need to be outside instead of sitting in front of screens."
Neal credited the media for stirring up public conversation and awareness.
"This is very good news," said Delegate Don Perdue, chairman of the House Health and Human Resources committee. "Whatever productive things we've been doing, we need to continue to do them."
"When we see the  numbers, we'll know if we have a sustained trend," Neal said.
Fifty-three of 55 school systems are signed up for CARDIAC screening this year.
Reach Kate Long at 304-348-1798 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
"The Shape We're In" has been supported by a Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism fellowship, administered by the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.