Heart disease and other cardiovascular issues are no longer only an issue for older Americans. New research reveals teens in this country are affected too.

The study was undertaken by a team of researchers headed by Christina Shay, Ph.D., of the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. They evaluated the health of America’s teenagers, especially when it comes to their cardiovascular health.

"Almost all children are born in the state of ideal cardiovascular health," said Shay, a faculty member with the OU College of Public Health’s Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology.

However, she said the study reveals that during the teenage years those children frequently make unhealthy choices that negatively impact their cardiovascular health, including smoking, poor diet choices and a lack of physical activity.

The researchers combed through data found in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. The 2005-2010 surveys produced a "snapshot" of cardiovascular health among about 4600 children between the ages of 12 and 19. Shay said seven health behaviors and health factors define cardiovascular health. These are:

SmokingBody mass index (BMI)Healthy dietPhysical activityBlood pressureBlood glucoseTotal cholesterol 

Each of the children is rated on all seven factors as poor, intermediate or ideal.

The research found that virtually all teens fall short in the area of diet. In fact, none of the male teens had ideal healthy diet scores and only 0.1 percent of female teens had an ideal score. In addition fewer than 50 percent of the teens achieved the ideal rating in five or more of the seven cardiovascular health measures.

Some of the results were less discouraging. Ideal blood pressure was generally high – 77.7 percent for male teens and 90.2 percent for females. About two-thirds of the teens had an ideal BMI and ideal smoking status too. "Smoking rates are decreasing among teenage groups," says Dr. Shay, "but as we know there are higher rates of obesity, higher rates of sedentary activity and diets are becoming more unfavorable."

Overall, Shay's study reaches a gloomy conclusion. She said the low prevalence of ideal cardiovascular health behaviors in U.S. adolescents, particularly physical activity and dietary intake, will likely lead to worsening prevalence of obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol and high blood glucose levels as the current U.S. adolescent population reaches adulthood.

“If habits and behaviors don’t change, these teens may develop cardiovascular disease at younger ages than previous generations,” she said.

Advancing medical technology will likely mean that these teenagers who go on to develop cardiovascular disease will be able to live longer with the disease than previous generations.

"They could potentially still live as long or longer than their parents," Shay says, "but they'll likely experience a lower health-related quality of life as they age."

Shay says two things are needed to improve the bleak health outlook for teenagers today. First, medical providers need to more strongly emphasize the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle to teenagers and their parents. Second, a major shift in social and cultural concepts of disease prevention will be necessary.

"It's going to require support from parents, from families, from healthcare professionals--and even more complicated -- from industry, government and schools to truly affect change.”

The research appears today in the online issue of the journal Circulation, a publication of the American Heart Association.