In a country with a soaring childhood obesity rate, doctors on an expert panel appointed by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics announced Friday that children should be tested for high cholesterol as early as age 9.

While they concede that such testing may not prevent heart attacks later on, they say waiting may imperil kids who have hidden risks.

The panel urges cholesterol screening between ages 9 and 11 — before puberty, when cholesterol temporarily dips — and again between ages 17 and 21. Overweight children and those who have other risks of Type 2 diabetes should be screened for diabetes every two years starting as early as 9, according to the panel.

In 2007, the US Preventive Services Task Force concluded that not enough is known about the possible benefits and risks to recommend cholesterol screening for children and teens. Dr. Michael LeFevre, a member of that group and a family medicine specialist at the University of Missouri, says that before screening is recommended, there should be evidence that treatment will actually improve health and not just reduce a cholesterol score.

But Dr. Elaine Urbina, director of preventive cardiology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, said, “If we screen at age 20, it may be already too late. … To me, it’s not controversial at all. We should have been doing this for years.”

[Associated Press]