How Autopsying Children Helped Us Learn AboutHeart Disease

Bodies donated to science help us gain a better understanding of life and death and in between.  We honor those that donated their bodies by learning and sharing the evidence collected from autopsy studies.  Since heart disease is the number one chronic condition that causes the most deaths in the U.S., it only makes sense to learn as much as we can about it.

Many of us already know that heart disease begins very early in life.  We know that cholesterol is associated with heart disease.  But, how do we really know this?  Someone told us or we read it somewhere or we learned it in school.

Well, it’s time to give due credit where credit is deserved…to youth who lost their lives early and were autopsied for science.  Here are the ways in which autopsying children helped us learn about heart disease:

  1. In 1953, young casualties of the Korean War were autopsied and found to have lesions and blockages in their cardiovascular systems. They were previously healthy young adult men around 22 years of age.  So, autopsies of these young adults revealed that atherosclerosis had progressed to concerning levels. (1)


  1. From the 1960’s to now, autopsy studies on children revealed several interesting findings:


  • Fatty build up (called fatty streaks) occur in the vascular system in most children by the age of 10. (2)
    • This was first found in the 60’s, so just imagine what the change in lifestyle and diet is doing to 10 year olds nowadays.


  • Cholesterol level (LDL and total) had the greatest effect on risk of atherosclerosis in youth (3)
    • 8 times more so than cigarette smoking


  • High Cholesterol (200-220 mg/dl) = High Risk of Cardiovascular Damage (4, 5)
    • autopsy studies in youth revealed that teens with high cholesterol were most likely to have atherosclerotic lesions
      • even if weight, blood pressure, and blood glucose were within normal limits (and they didn’t smoke)


  • Low Cholesterol = < 10% chance of cardiovascular damage (5)
    • These same autopsy studies revealed that teens with low cholesterol were least likely to have any atherosclerotic damage.


The young children whose bodies were autopsied for our education are highly valued.  The information gained from these studies has stood the test of time and still remains true.

  • High cholesterol levels contribute to the progression of atherosclerosis.
  • The reversal (not prevention) of atherosclerosis and heart disease must begin early in life. Although, it is never too late to start.



  1. F. Enos, R. H. Holmes, J. Beyer. Coronary disease among United States soldiers killed in action in Korea preliminary report. Journal of the American Medical Association 1953 152(12):1090 – 1093.
  2. P. Strong, H. C. McGill. The pediatric aspects of atherosclerosis. J Atheroscler Res 1969 9(3):251 – 265.
  3. P. Newman III, D. S. Freedman, A. W. Voors, P. D. Gard, S. R. Srinivasan, J. L. Cresanta, G. D. Williamson, L. S. Webber, G. S. Berenson. Relation of serum lipoprotein levels and systolic blood pressure to early atherosclerosis. The Bogalusa Heart Study. N. Engl. J. Med. 1986 314(3):138 – 144.
  4. C. McGill Jr., E.E. Herderick. Atherosclerosis in youth. Minerva Pediatr 2002 54(5):437-447.
  5. A. McMahan, S. S. Gidding, G. T. Malcom, R. E. Tracy, J. P. Strong, H. C. McGill Jr. Pathobiological determinants of atherosclerosis in youth risk scores are associated with early and advanced atherosclerosis. Pediatrics 2006 118(4):1447 – 1455.