You can help your child now to develop healthy behavior patterns that will prevent heart disease as an adult. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death among adults in North America but studies show that starting heart-healthy habits in childhood can dramatically decrease the risks later in life.
Cardiovascular disease begins as atherosclerosis, also known as hardening of the arteries. When the inner lining of the artery is damaged by fat deposition, plaque will form and cause a bump on the artery wall. As the bump gets bigger, the arteries harden and narrow. The blood flow is reduced and can cause heart attacks, strokes, or disease in the vessels that supply blood to the arms and legs. Although atherosclerosis usually does not cause symptoms until adulthood, the process begins in childhood.
A family history of early heart disease can put your child at risk for future problems. Though you cannot change these inherited risks, you can help your child control as many preventative risk factors as possible. The following is a list of how to keep your child’s heart-healthy.
NUTRITION and DIET
Good nutrition beginning at birth has profound health benefits, with the potential to decrease the future risk for cardiovascular disease.
You, as a parent, can encourage healthy eating habits:
- Eat breakfast every day and eat meals as a family
- Encourage dietary fiber from foods. Have your child eat more whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables.
- Limit fruit juice and sugar-sweetened beverages; encourage water and milk
- Limit salt
- Limit refined carbohydrates (simple sugars and white flour)
- Limit saturated and trans fats. Choose lean meats and low-fat dairy products. Avoid fried foods, fast foods, and snack foods like chips, cookies, cakes, and donuts.
Physical activity optimizes cardiovascular health in children and adolescents. Youth with a sedentary lifestyle have increased risks of developing other heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes.
You should encourage heart-healthy physical activity and limit sedentary time:
- Encourage unlimited active playtime for children under 5 in a safe, supportive environment
- Encourage a mix of moderate and high-intensity activities for children over 5, such as bike riding, rollerblading, snowboarding, or jogging. Look into organized sports, lessons, or clubs that suit your child’s interests
- Create family outings that involve some type of physical activity
- Limit total media time to no more than 1 to 2 hours of quality programming per day
- No screens in a child’s bedroom (TV, phone, computer, etc.)
Tobacco increases the risk of heart disease. Nicotine narrows the blood vessels and puts an added strain on the heart. Smoking increases heart rate tightens major arteries and can create irregularities in the timing of heartbeats, all of which make the heart work harder. Chemicals in tobacco smoke lead to the buildup of plaque in the arteries.
When parents smoke, the child is much more likely to start smoking as a teen. Children exposed to secondhand smoke have higher risks for cardiac disease, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, respiratory infections, asthma, ear infections, and chronic cough.
You can discourage your child from smoking:
- Be a role model for your child. If you smoke, quit. And do not allow others to smoke in your home.
- Do not expose children to smoke in the home or in the car
- Talk about the bad effects of smoking, such as yellow teeth, bad breath, smelly clothes, and shortness of breath
- Talk about the dangers of smoking
- If your child smokes, help them figure out why they should quit, advise them on how to quit, and have them see a doctor for advice on how to quit
HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE
High blood pressure is a serious condition in childhood. It can damage the cells of your arteries’ inner lining. High blood pressure can also damage your heart by causing it to work harder to pump blood to your body. Over time, the strain on your heart can cause your heart muscles to weaken and work less efficiently.
Parents can encourage lifestyle changes that will help children control high blood pressure:
- Do not miss routine physical exams. Your doctor will measure your child’s blood pressure regularly. It is the only way to know if there is a problem.
- Drop excess pounds. Children who are overweight often have a higher blood pressure than those who are not.
- Limit salt
- Increase physical activity
- Warn about the dangers of smoking
- If a program of diet and exercise does not lower your child’s blood pressure, medicines may be prescribed
High levels of lipids circulating in the blood is a risk factor for developing heart disease. Lipids are another word for fats. Cholesterol and triglycerides are lipids. Over time, lipids can form a plaque inside an artery. This process can begin in early childhood. In some cases, high cholesterol runs in families. Other risk factors include obesity, high blood pressure, and smoking.
You can encourage lifestyle changes that will help children control lipids and cholesterol:
- See your doctor regularly. Your pediatrician may order a lipid panel to look at the different kinds of fats in the blood at routine physical exams.
- Eat foods low in cholesterol and fat. Choose lean meats, avoid fried foods and add little or no fats to foods.
- Increase in fiber. Have your child eat more whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables.
- Limit sugar and simple carbohydrates (ice cream, crackers, sugary cereals, crackers, and white bread)
- Get plenty of exercises
- Drop excess pounds
- Warn about the dangers of smoking
- If a program of diet and exercise does not lower your child’s lipids, medicines may be prescribed
The presence of obesity in childhood and adolescence is associated with increased evidence of atherosclerosis and is a risk factor for developing heart disease. Even a moderate amount of weight loss can translate to big improvements. Your child’s doctor can usually help you with a diet and exercise plan that includes reasonable weight loss goals, lifestyle changes, and family support and involvement.
Parents can encourage lifestyle changes to help their child lose weight:
- Control portion sizes to eat fewer calories
- Limit snacking and be aware of the snack foods your child is eating
- Reduce the intake of sweetened beverages and sugary foods
- Increase fruits and vegetables
- Eat meals as a family
- Increase physical activity and fun exercise activities you can do as a family
- Limit the amount of time your child spends watching TV and playing on the computer
Diabetes is a very serious risk factor for developing heart disease. When combined with other risk factors, such as obesity, diabetes further raises the risk of heart disease.
There are two types of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes usually starts at a younger age. In type 1 diabetes, the body does not make enough insulin. This causes blood sugar to rise. Type 2 diabetes usually starts in adult life but can start in adolescence. In type 2 diabetes, the body’s cells don’t respond to insulin properly. At first, the body reacts by making more insulin. Over time though, the body can’t make enough insulin to control the blood sugar level. There is no way to prevent Type 1 diabetes, but Type 2 diabetes is often preventable with weight management.
You can encourage your child to keep blood sugar in a normal range:
- Take your child to their routine physical exams. Your doctor will check your child’s blood sugar or hemoglobin A1c, which is a marker of chronically high blood sugar.
- Follow your diabetes treatment plan and see your doctor for ongoing care
- Eat healthy foods. A registered dietitian can help you develop a plan of eating to keep blood sugars from fluctuating too much and also meet the needs of your growing child.
- Manage weight
- Get plenty of exercises. Regular physical activity helps your body use insulin more efficiently.
- Stop smoking
Metabolic syndrome is a cluster of risk factors that dramatically increases the chance of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Kids with metabolic syndrome have three or more of the following risk factors: Excessive belly fat, high blood pressure, abnormal levels of blood fats (lipids) including cholesterol and triglycerides, and high blood sugar. Metabolic syndrome is one of the things your doctor routinely screens your child during physical exams.
Encourage lifestyle changes to reduce the risks of developing Metabolic Syndrome:
- See your doctor for routine physical exams
- Drop excess pounds
- Get more exercise
- Eat more fruits and vegetables
- Avoid soda and sweets
- Do not smoke
- When lifestyle changes are not enough, your child may be prescribed medications to treat individual risk factors
“Expert Panel on Integrated Guidelines for Cardiovascular Health and Risk Reduction in Children and Adolescents”. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. NIH Publication NIH 12-7486A. October 2012
“The Effects of Secondhand Smoke”. WebMD . https://www.webmd.com/smoking-cessation/effects-of-secondhand-smoke
“Hearti-Facts” Texas Heart Institute. http://www.texasheart.org/
“Metabolic Syndrome”. KidsHealth. http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/metabolic-syndrome.html?ref=search&WT.ac=msh-p-dtop-en-search-clk