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updated 4/11/2011 5:19:54 PM ET 2011-04-11T21:19:54

The size of a child's wrist may indicate whether he or she is at risk for heart disease, a new study suggests.

The results show large wrist sizes in adolescents are associated with high insulin levels. Insulin is a hormone that is needed to get sugar, or glucose, into cells. High levels of it mean an individual may go on to develop insulin resistance, a condition in which the body does not respond properly to the hormone. Insulin resistance, in turn, is known to put people at risk for cardiovascular disease.

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While a child's waistline is also known to be a predictor of cardiovascular disease risk later in life, measuring waist circumference is sometimes difficult to do, in part because children's bodies are rapidly changing during puberty, the researchers say.

"We found a very easy-to-detect, new method to measure insulin resistance in children," said study researcher Dr. Raffaella Buzzetti, professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at Sapienza University of Rome, Italy. If the findings are confirmed in future studies, wrist circumference might be used to predict insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease risk in children, Buzzetti said.

The results of this study will be published April 26 in the journal Circulation.

Buzzetti and her colleagues studied 477 adolescents (the average age of the participants was 10), measuring their wrist circumference and body mass index, or BMI. Body mass index is a ratio of weight to height and is an indicator of body fatness.

The study found that the larger the child's wrist, the higher his or her insulin levels were.

Wrist circumference was a better predictor of insulin resistance that was BMI. Insulin levels varied between children, and a child's wrist size could explain 12 percent to 17 percent of this variance, the researchers say.

About half of the subjects also had their wrists scanned using magnetic resonance imagining (MRI) in order to distinguish the boney areas from the fatty areas of this body part. The researchers found a link between the wrist size (as measured by the boney area of the wrist) and insulin resistance, but not between the fatty area of the wrist and insulin resistance.

It's possible that insulin acts as a growth factor and regulates the growth of bone cells, the researchers say. This means wrist size could be an indicator of increased bone production in the presence of high insulin levels, the researchers say.

"One of the major priorities of clinical practice today is the identification of young people at increased risk for insulin resistance," Buzzetti said. "This is a very, very strong link. Wrist circumference mirrors insulin resistance levels."

Pass it on: Wrist size may predict which children are at risk for insulin resistance, which in turn is a risk factor for heart disease.

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