For Ella Callahan, 16, living a healthy life is easy.
Her mom, Debra Vacca, packs her lunches full of tofu and grilled squash, and she cooks all-organic dinners with fresh vegetables every night. She plays on her Florida high school's golf team and works out at a local gym during the off-season.
But for some of Callahan's high school friends, eating well isn't so easy.
"Fast-food is really cheap, and a lot of my friends work and have to buy their own things," she said. "They don't want to spend their own money on food."
When you picture a group of people who are overweight, unhealthy and suffering from cardiovascular disease, you don't think of teenagers.
Today's adolescents, particularly girls, are no longer the healthy, vivacious youths they once were.
A new study from Northwestern University researchers of a random national sampling of thousands of teens, ages 12 to 19, found that they are more likely to die from heart disease at a younger age than today's adults. The study doesn't suggest they will die as teens but are setting in motion health risks that could begin to take a toll in their 30s and 40s instead of in their 50s and 60s.
"Heart disease doesn't happen in a day. It literally takes decades to develop into what will ultimately become a heart attack," said Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones, the study's lead researcher and chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine. "The fact that we're seeing increases (in heart disease) in younger women means that they were developing the precursors through childhood and young adulthood."
Highlighting the extent of the problem, 100 percent of the adolescents in the study had what researchers consider poor diets, high in sodium and sugar and lacking in fruits, vegetables, fiber and lean protein. The study identified participants by gender only.
According to the health profiles of the 5,547 children and adolescents in the study, many have high blood sugar levels and are overweight or obese. They also don't get enough exercise and demonstrate poor health habits such as smoking.
"Unfortunately, the level of ideal cardiovascular health in our teens is quite low," Lloyd-Jones said. "This is disturbing because, generally speaking, everyone is born with good cardiovascular health. We are starting to see problems as early as the teen years. That health is being lost and lost rapidly, and this is obviously quite distressing."
It's going to take a society makeover in order to get people back on a healthy track, Lloyd-Jones said. Part of the formula will depend the individual, but the solution also will need a public health approach.
"Obviously this is not a medical problem. It becomes a medical problem, but it's really a societal problem," Lloyd-Jones said. "We've designed a society that encourages sedentary behaviors. We have an environment that is far too dense in calories. We don't have the time or the will to make sure people are eating more whole foods, have access to fruits and vegetables, and that they can get outside in a safe environment and play."
Researchers reported their findings this week at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions conference in Orlando.
Seven heart association factors were used as criteria to determine ideal cardiovascular health: diet, blood sugar levels, body mass index, physical activity, cholesterol levels, indications of smoking and blood pressure levels.
More than 30 percent of boys and 40 percent of girls have elevated blood sugar, according to the study. Some 35 percent are overweight or qualify as clinically obese. Most have the ideal blood pressure levels, but only 38 percent of girls meet the ideal levels of physical activity compared with 52 percent of boys.
These seven indicators of health are important to monitor because they are also associated with cancer and chronic diseases such as diabetes and arthritis, Lloyd-Jones said.
Parents play a big role in instilling these basic health habits in children.
"Getting back to the family dinner that is cooked at home is a really important step forward," he said. "I think that's the thing parents can most easily control."
John Reyes, who has been the school nurse at William Fremd High School in northwest suburban Palatine since 2003, said he's concerned that more students are engaging in social networking and time spent playing video games rather than physical activity.
"From the very first year compared to my eighth year, the incoming freshman kids are not at a healthy BMI," he said.
Like Lloyd-Jones, Reyes emphasizes the importance of role models to educate children about living a sensible, active life.
"It all starts in grade school," he said. "Primary educators need to encourage parents to have their kids do more activities, do more sports and restrict the time spent online."
Health professionals have known that the numbers of young adults displaying risk factors for cardiovascular disease have been growing for years now. So many people ask: why haven't we seen a reverse in this trend in adolescents yet?
One of the problems with this issue is that there aren't any physicians targeting cardiovascular health for this demographic on a day-to-day basis, said Damien Kenny, pediatric cardiologist at Rush University Medical Center.
"An epidemiologist can write the study and tell us this is a problem, but there aren't people who are out there monitoring it," he said. "You have pediatric cardiologists who usually center around those born with congenital heart disease. What you don't have is someone in the middle dealing with the 18- to 30-year-old group who are there predominantly to try and maintain good health rather than treating it when it goes bad."
Kenny echoed the sentiments of Lloyd-Jones, saying it's the young society's lifestyle, diet and attitudes that are leading to earlier morbidity and mortality.
"In order to change that, you need a national change," Kenny said.
One of the things that may need to change is the practice of using fast-food restaurants as a place for social gathering.
"It's somewhere to go with your friends," Callahan said. "If your mom makes dinner, you can't have all your friends over. Going out to eat is a social thing."
"People spend so much time on the computer and watching TV," she said. "They just forget to go take a walk or go to the gym or something."
If adolescents continue on this path, our country will not be able to afford the health care costs, Lloyd-Jones said.
"The take-home is this: Eat less. Eat smart. And move more every day," he said. "That's the holy grail, the fountain of youth."