Although most parents would not want to admit it, the beginnings of heart disease can be seen in kids as young as 10 years old. The important fact here is that if the beginnings of this serious disease are left untreated, children can develop heart disease later in life, which can prove to be fatal. But there is good news, which you can learn about in a recent blog by Mason Gomberg, MD, a pediatrician in our Westchester Health Pediatrics group.
Heart disease risk factors
Heart disease is the #1 killer of men and women in the U.S. and often stems from unhealthy childhood habits. The chief risk factors of heart disease are:
- High blood pressure
- High blood level of cholesterol
- Physical inactivity
- Family history of early-onset heart disease
The most important way your child can avoid heart disease is by a healthy diet
Unfortunately, American children and adolescents, on average, eat more saturated fat and have higher blood cholesterol levels than young people their age in most other developed countries. Not surprisingly, the rate of heart disease tends to keep pace with cholesterol levels. One study from autopsies showed early signs of hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) in 7% of children between ages 10 and 15 years. The rate was twice as high between ages 15 and 20.
Heredity is clearly an important risk factor for conditions such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. However, researchers are finding more and more that there is a direct link between diet and the development of diseases. According to the American Heart Association, a heart-healthy diet from an early age lowers cholesterol, and if followed through adolescence and beyond, should reduce the risk of coronary artery disease in adulthood.
Do you have a family history of heart disease?
When you first took your child to a pediatrician, you may have been asked if there was a history of heart or vascular disease in your family. This is important information for both you and your child’s doctor to know. Has either set of grandparents, maternal or paternal, ever had a heart attack, stroke or any other type of heart disease? If the answer is yes, be sure to bring it to your pediatrician’s attention.
Get your cholesterol tested
At your child’s next checkup, your pediatrician may recommend a cholesterol and triglyceride screening blood test. For adopted children, even for those adopted in open proceedings, complete biological family medical histories are often not available. To help prevent heart disease linked to high blood cholesterol levels, we at Westchester Health strongly recommend that adopted children are screened periodically for blood lipid (fat) levels throughout their childhood.
3 important ways you can help reduce your child’s risk of heart disease
Starting even at birth, good nutrition can decrease the risk of heart disease. What can you do? Encourage your child to eat vegetables and fruits every day. Reduce soda, sugary beverages and empty-calorie foods such as potato chips, candy bars and cookies. Saturated fats should be definitely avoided. A saturated fat is generally solid at room temperature and includes fatty meats, cream, butter, cheese, palm and coconut oils. Discuss portion control with your child, but before that, learn how much or how little constitutes a healthy portion.
Physical activity in childhood sets the tone for good exercise habits in adulthood. Children under 17 should exercise at least 60 minutes a day. You can help motivate your child to exercise by doing the activity with them, such as biking, hiking, swimming, soccer, basketball, rollerblading or running. Even jumping rope for 20 minutes is an excellent exercise!
One of the most important things you can do to help prevent heart disease in your child is to maintain a smoke-free environment in your home and your car so that your child is not exposed to the harmful effects of secondhand smoke. Because children’s lungs are still developing, they are especially vulnerable to the effects of breathing in secondhand smoke. At Westchester Health Pediatrics, we also strongly advise you to discourage your child from smoking or other forms of tobacco use.
A nutritious diet and active family routine can help all of us lead healthier lives
Adhere to these guidelines to reduce your entire family’s risk of heart disease:
- Eat a healthy breakfast every day
- Eat low-fat dairy products such as low fat cheese, yogurt skim milk
- Regularly eat meals together as a family
- Limit fast food, takeout food and eating out at restaurants (typically high in sodium)
- Avoid fried foods and highly-processed fatty foods
- Prepare foods at home as a family
- Eat a diet rich in calcium
- Eat a high fiber diet
- Try to eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables every day
Want to know more about preventing heart disease in your child? Come see us, we’re here to help.
If you’d like an evaluation of your child’s current heart disease risk, as well as advice for improving your child’s diet and exercise level, please make an appointment with Westchester Health. One of our pediatricians will examine your child, discuss the findings with both of you, and offer guidance on things that can be done to reduce the risk. Our #1 goal is for your child to be as healthy and happy as possible. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.
To read Dr. Gomberg’s blog in full, click here.