The more television a child watches, the more likely the youngster is to have high levels of potentially artery-clogging cholesterol, a study showed Tuesday.

Researchers from the University of California-Irvine said their study of 1,066 young people ages 2 to 20 found an "amazing correlation" between how much time was spent watching TV and cholesterol levels."Watching two hours or more of TV daily turned out to be a stronger predictor of elevated cholesterol in children than any other factor we looked at," said Dr. Kurt Gold, co-author of the study which also examined family medical history, obesity, diet and exercise.

About 8 percent of the children surveyed had blood cholesterol levels of 200 milligrams per deciliter - one-tenth of a liter - or greater. Another 13 percent had levels between 176 milligrams and 199 milligrams per deciliter.

The American Academy of Pediatrics considers a cholesterol level greater that 175 milligrams per deciliter in children high enough to warrant dietary changes.

Children who watched two or more hours of TV daily were twice as likely to have cholesterol levels over 200 than those who watched less. The situation was even worse for those youngsters who watched four or more hours of TV per day - they had four times the risk of having cholesterol counts above 200 as those who watched less than two hours.

"Since cholesterol levels tend to rise somewhat as a child reaches adulthood, many of these children could have dangerously high levels later in life," said Gold, whose findings were presented at an American Heart Association meeting.

Excessive levels of cholesterol are associated with atherosclerosis, a narrowing of the arteries that greatly increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Researchers do not know precisely why greater amounts of TV watching were linked to higher cholester

ol levels in young people. However, they speculated that heavy TV watchers tend to eat more high-calorie snacks, be exposed to more commercials for high-fat "junk" foods and exercise less than those who spend less time in front of the TV.

Gold conceded that it is also possible that TV watching may not play a direct role in boosting cholesterol levels, but may act as a good marker of children with a genetic tendency or other factors predisposing them to elevated cholesterol.

Whatever the association between TV watching and high cholesterol, Gold suggests that pediatricians routinely question parents about their children's TV viewing habits and run cholesterol tests on children who are heavy TV watchers.

"I think these findings give us an opportunity to make a real difference," Gold said.