In the first study of its kind, researchers found that early education about the dangers of smoking and the benefits of a good diet and exercise appears effective at lowering the risk of heart disease.

"The take-home message is that kids can be taught in school how to reduce the risk for the nation's No. 1 killer and that schools can play a big role in improving the health status of kids," said Dr. Heather Walter of the American Health Foundation in New York, where the study was conducted.

Walter and her colleagues found that fourth- through eighth-graders in the New York City area who took special health classes lowered their total blood cholesterol levels by an average of 4 percent.