Fill in the blank: Tens of thousands of kids can benefit from ____________. Did you say vitamins? Exercise? Nutritious meals, perhaps?
Well, if you were on the panel of doctors who published a piece in Pediatrics last month, your answer would have been “drugs.” Surprised? Sadly, I’m not.
A Pill a Day
There once was a time when the sentiment “I’m too young to take a pill every day” was common. Well, today, taking prescriptions is a right of passage for young people. Elementary school children are taking hard-core medications for health, behavioral and emotional issues that might be addressed in other ways. It’s become so common that some doctors and parents barely bat an eye at a 10-year-old child taking strong medications like statins.
The impetus for the Pediatrics study seems well-intentioned enough: some kids who need cholesterol screening aren’t getting tested because they don’t qualify. Such testing is usually reserved for those with a family history of heart disease. So, researchers recorded the family histories of over 20,000 children and gave them cholesterol tests. About 10% of the children who ended up having high LDL-cholesterol would have been excluded from the testing under current guidelines. So, the researchers stated, universal screening would be very beneficial so all children with elevated cholesterol levels could be identified (1).
Fine, maybe universal screening for high cholesterol could head off future heart problems. I’m on board with this—if the information from the testing is used properly.
But what I really cannot get behind are some physicians’ reactions to this research. What do they feel an apt outcome to the universal testing should be? Not better lifestyle choices. Not better eating habits. Rather, they favor more pediatric prescriptions for cholesterol-lowering drugs—which were billed as positive moves. The lead physician and author of the study told Reuters, “treating youth with cholesterol-lowering drugs…would curb the risk that they would go on to develop heart problems in middle age.”
Is he for real? Probably—after all, he just published a paper in a journal that gets a portion of its advertising from drug companies! The researcher also felt, “although universal screening would be expensive, it would save a lot of money later on if heart disease could be prevented.”
I’ll tell you what else would save a lot of money. Not taking prescription drugs, instead choosing to exercise more and make better meal choices. These are the preventative actions that should be tried first, well before drugs. The fact of the matter is only 1.7% of the kids who wouldn’t have qualified for the tests actually needed drug therapy. That’s somewhere between nine or 10 kids out of 20,266 children. Certainly, the health of every child is important. But to recommend changing testing requirements for just a handful of children is ludicrous if the reason is money.
What’s more is the gamble that’s involved. While healthy lifestyle choices are known to benefit healthy cholesterol for the long-term, the safety of taking statins from childhood is not known. As for whether they will reduce future healthcare costs, no one knows for sure. I guess that’s a risk the drug companies are willing to take (I say this days before the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to announce whether it will pull GSK’s blockbuster Avandia, but alas, that is an editorial for another day).
Are times so tough that some feel this is the best way to secure a fresh, young customer base? Shameful! WF
1. S.K. Ritchie, et al., “Universal Versus Targeted Blood Cholesterol Screening Among Youth: The CARDIAC Project,” Pediatrics, published ahead of print on July 12, 2010.
Published in WholeFoods Magazine, August 2010 (epub July 21, 2010)