Pediatricians say many American children have high cholesterol levels that may put them on the road to heart disease later in life and recommend low-cholesterol diets after the age of 2.

Drs. Richard Garcia and Douglas Moodie wrote in the Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine that the high cholesterol levels common in American children increase their chances of developing atherosclerosis at an early age.Atherosclerosis is the buildup of a fatlike substance in the arteries that eventually leads to a heart attack.

High cholesterol levels have long been considered a significant factor in the development of heart disease. Only recently, however, have elevated cholesterol levels in children been considered a link to heart disease and heart attacks later in life.

Among the studies cited was a survey of 6,500 children in Parma Heights near Cleveland, where nearly twice the number expected had cholesterol levels above 200, considered very high for children.

Another study by researchers in Bogalusa, La., and sponsored by the National Institutes of Health showed that elevated cholesterol levels in children continue into adulthood. About 70 percent of those children who had high cholesterol levels at age 12 still had them at 21.

"The data provide convincing evidence that the major predicator of adult hypercholesterolemia is hypercholesterolemia in childhood," the physicians reported.

Perhaps the most disturbing evidence that many American children are heading for heart disease appeared in an earlier study at the Louisiana State University of Medicine in New Orleans. That study found fatty streaks in the aortas of nearly all children surveyed over age 3.

"These fatty streaks are significant because they may well be the precursors of atherosclerosis later in life," said Garcia.

The doctors said they support dietary guidelines that gradually decrease consumption of cholesterol and saturated fat after age 2.