I Had High Cholesterol at 8 Years Old, and Now My Son Has it Too
One in five kids in the United States have high cholesterol, setting them up for a higher heart disease risk later on. Here's how one women with a history of childhood high cholesterol is helping her teen son deal with the problem.
All in the family
High cholesterol isn’t just a grown-up problem. One in five children in the United States have high cholesterol, and that number is increasing. Yet high cholesterol often has no symptoms, and it’s not routinely checked in young children. Parents may not know that their child has it unless they ask for testing. Ashleigh Hoffman (we are using her middle name to protect her privacy) was diagnosed with high cholesterol when she was just 8 years old. Now a 35-year-old student and mother in Colorado, Hoffman is helping her teenage son deal with high cholesterol.
A diagnosis I didn’t expect
Hershey’s Cookies ‘n’ Cream bars, the kind with cookie pieces encased in white chocolate, were my favorite snack as a child, and I got one nearly every time I went to the store with my mom. It was just one of the goodies we’d carry home. My mom would fill our grocery cart with cookies, candy, chocolate bars, and other treats.
She traveled a lot, so when she was home, she liked to indulge her kids. It’s how she showed her love.
We weren’t just treated when my mom was home, though. When she was out of town, the housekeeper usually bought us fast food. Sometimes we’d heat up a can of SpaghettiOs or boxed mac ‘n’ cheese.
So it wasn’t much of a surprise when I was diagnosed as slightly overweight at my annual well-child checkup. The shock came when the doctor, who had insisted on doing extra blood work, discovered that my cholesterol was off the charts. I was just 8 years old.
How does a second-grader get astronomically high cholesterol? My daily diet of fast food and chocolate bars certainly played a part, but my doctor explained that in young children, high cholesterol is mostly genetic.
It was true: even though we were all very active in sports, nearly every adult in my family, including my mom, had high cholesterol, diabetes, or both.
The pediatrician explained to my mom that because my genetics were already working against me, it was especially important for me to adopt a heart-healthy lifestyle. If we didn’t get my cholesterol under control, I’d be at a high risk for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other lifelong illnesses.
My mom took the doctor very seriously.
My life changed overnight
Children don’t generally feed themselves, so changing my diet meant overhauling how the whole family ate. Thankfully, everyone was up to the challenge. Besides, it was better for everyone’s health, not just mine.
We replaced processed, packaged meals for more home-cooked fare, including lean meats, fruits, and vegetables. (Admittedly, we always drenched our salads and veggies in oil, cheese, or butter.) And we limited our fast food meals to once a week.
Drinks got overhauled too. We removed soda and juice from the pantry and served water instead.
I wouldn’t say we ate healthy per se, but mealtimes were definitely healthier than before.
Exercise helped as well. I was already dancing four days a week at a studio, but I started playing baseball a couple days a week as well.
Six months later, I’d lost 10 pounds and my cholesterol levels had dropped to a normal range. Even though I was very young, I’d learned an important lesson about my body and how to take care of it.
My genetic legacy
Growing up, I mainly stuck to a healthy-ish diet. I still loved fast food—and always will! But I had learned to eat smaller portion sizes and balance these less-than-healthy meals with good-for-me foods.
I also made an effort to become educated about good nutrition. I stopped drowning my salads in dressing, which was countering some of the good I was trying to do with my diet. By adulthood, I’d mostly lost my sweet tooth, so treats weren’t much of a temptation anymore.
I love to exercise, so I’ve stayed active dancing, spinning, and working out at the gym.
In the back of my mind, I knew high cholesterol was always a concern—especially as my siblings were diagnosed with it over the years—but my blood work was fine at my checkups, so I didn’t worry about it much.
That is, until last year, when my then 14-year-old son Ben (we are using his middle name to protect his privacy) was diagnosed with high cholesterol.
Just like my pediatrician had years ago, Ben’s doctor had become concerned that he was overweight and ordered extra tests. Those tests showed very high cholesterol levels and some liver dysfunction, which the doctor said was related to his cholesterol. He’d likely had it for years, but because his weight had been normal, he’d never been tested.
I cooked healthier meals
As a child, I hadn’t truly understood the lifelong impact that high cholesterol can have on health, and I saw the same denial in Ben. He was a teenager and felt invincible! But as his mother, I knew how serious it was and resolved to help him overcome his genetic predisposition to heart disease.
Ben loves basketball, so he was already getting some cardio. But I also signed him up to work with a personal trainer, who gave him personalized workouts and dietary advice. At home, I cooked healthy meals every day for us.
We’d made important changes, yet his progress was small. At his next checkup, we were hoping to see normal cholesterol levels. Instead, his numbers hadn’t changed much.
Family members weren’t always supportive
I was confused by his still-high numbers until I discovered a strange backpack while cleaning his room one day. It was stuffed full of fast-food containers, candy wrappers, and empty soda cans.
He had been using his pocket money to buy junk food—and lots of it. He ate it in the secrecy of in his room.
I soon discovered there was another factor in play: my mother, who lives a short walk away from our house. Almost every day after school, Ben would go over there.
Food is still a big way she shows love, and she loves getting to play the indulgent grandma. She stocked her house with treats for him, and if she didn’t have what he wanted, she gave him money to buy it.
This was incredibly frustrating and disheartening. I had thought she had learned her lesson with me, but it turns out she viewed being a grandmother differently than motherhood.
It was my job to discipline the kids and enforce dietary rules, not hers. She just wanted to be the fun one, she explained.
Setting up a plan
I confronted Ben about all of this, and he confessed to everything. Eating junk food was a major way he dealt with stress, and it had become a problem. He didn’t want to be unhealthy, but he also didn’t know how to stop.
After a long talk, Ben and I agreed on some steps to help him eat a healthier diet. No more hiding food. And more honesty about what and why he was eating.
We also set a sleep schedule for him, and he found a job to stay busy. The last step was harder but so important: we decided to limit visits with my mom to once a week, at most.
It’s been one year since his first cholesterol test, and while his cholesterol levels still aren’t ideal, they are now on a good downward trend. I know we still have a long road ahead of us—living a healthy lifestyle when you have family and friends actively working against your goals is incredibly tough, especially for teenagers.
But I have a lot of hope that Ben can learn the same lessons I did and will take control of his cholesterol. And he knows that I will be there with him every step of the way.
Real love isn’t giving children everything they want. It’s being strong enough to stick with them through the tough stuff, even if they don’t always like it.
—As told to Charlotte Hilton Andersen
- Ashleigh Hoffman of Colorado (middle name used to protect privacy)
- National Center for Health Statistics Data Brief: "Abnormal Cholesterol Among Children and Adolescents in the United States, 2011–2014"