Researchers at Cincinnati Children’s have found that teenagers who do not control cardiovascular risk factors during adolescence face “accelerated arterial aging” by their early ‘20s.

The four-year study shows that, on average, teens with uncontrolled high blood pressure, obesity and high levels of LDL cholesterol develop atherosclerosis in their carotid arteries by age 22. This puts them at higher risk of heart attack and stroke.

“Young people must change their lifestyles to reduce risk factors and prevent a projected decline in life expectancy,” says Elaine Urbina, MD, director of preventive cardiology at Cincinnati Children’s and the study’s lead author.

Doctors have a role to play as well.

“Physicians should address cardiovascular risk factors early in life to prevent stroke and heart attacks in adulthood,” Urbina says. “And they should continue to screen for abnormalities in cardiovascular risk factors such as cholesterol and blood pressure, especially in children with an elevated body mass index or type 2 diabetes.”

Urbina presented the findings Nov. 7, 2012, at the annual meeting of the American Heart Association in Los Angeles.

The study found a significant increase in internal carotid wall thickness, particularly in those with obesity and type 2 diabetes.  Carotid stiffness also increased if participants entered the study with high LDL cholesterol, a change in body mass index, or if carotid stiffness had already begun.

The study is one of the first longitudinal studies to show the rate of progression of carotid wall thickness in this age group.  In 2009, Urbina published a study in Circulation that revealed carotid atherosclerosis in obese children as young as 11. The earlier study, however, did not track changes over time.