WEDNESDAY, Oct. 26, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- Young children should be screened for a type of genetic heart disease that significantly increases their risk of a heart attack at a young age, a new British study suggests.

The screening could also identify parents with familial hypercholesterolemia. The condition, which causes high cholesterol levels, is the main inherited cause of early heart disease, the study authors said.

Without preventive medication, people with familial hypercholesterolemia have a 10-fold increased risk of heart attack before age 40, the study noted.

Researchers tested more than 10,000 children in England and found that one in 270 had familial hypercholesterolemia. That rate is nearly double the previously reported one in 500, the researchers said.

After a child with familial hypercholesterolemia was identified, their parents underwent screening. Overall, one in every 125 persons tested was found to be at high risk for a heart attack, the researchers said.

The researchers also concluded that with effective treatment, screening 1- to 2-year-olds for familial hypercholesterolemia when they receive routine vaccinations could prevent about 600 heart attacks in people younger than 40 in England and Wales.

The study was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"This is the first demonstration that child-parent screening works on a large scale. It's the only screening method that stands a reasonable chance of covering the whole population and identifying those at highest risk of an early heart attack," said lead researcher Dr. David Wald, a professor of cardiology at Queen Mary University of London.

"The next step is for public health agencies to consider offering this routinely at the time of childhood vaccination to test all children aged 1 to 2 years," he said in a university news release.

Steps to reduce the risk of heart attack include cholesterol-lowering statins and other medications in adults and teens, along with healthy eating and avoiding smoking.

"This is an example of an effective screening strategy being combined with routine vaccination, which has clear advantages," Wald said. "No extra clinic visits are needed and uptake is high because parents are already focused on the future health of their children and the family as a whole."

More information

The U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute has more on familial hypercholesterolemia.