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Preventing Heart Disease Begins in Childhood

separator For some reason, we often think that children don’t have to worry about watching their diets and their weight. We let them eat more French fries and hamburgers and ice cream than we might allow ourselves to eat. “Let them enjoy it while they’re young,” we think. “At least they don’t have to worry about serious health problems at this age.” 

But the truth is that studies have shown that in some people, the earliest stages of heart disease can begin in childhood. Atherosclerosis, a gradual buildup in the arteries of fat and other substances can occur as a result of unhealthy diet and lack of exercise even in children. And equally important is that this same unhealthy pattern also increases the risk of type 2 diabetes among children. 

Parents play a role in heart disease prevention
As a parent, you can have a profound impact on your child’s future heart health. Here are some recommendations that have been put forth in numerous studies that have looked at cardiovascular disease and the young. 

Activity level
Children are less likely to be active these days, for a variety of reasons. Many schools have drastically reduced physical education classes. Parents feel less secure about allowing their children to walk or ride a bike to school. Extracurricular activities can be expensive and even difficult for some children to get to if both parents are working. Not to mention the constant temptation of television, videos and DVDs and computer games. 

All of these factors don’t change the fact that children should take part in some kind of physical activity at least 4 or 5 times per week. What can parents do to encourage this?

  • When you talk to your children about getting extra exercise, don’t actually call it exercise. Use terms like extra play time, activity, sports and games.
  • Don’t single out one child. Even if only one of your children is overweight and less active, place importance on the health of the entire family, not that one child.
  • Set aside family time several times per week that’s devoted to being active together.
  • If you have the time and are interested, encourage increased opportunities for physical activity in your community. Express an interest in safe playgrounds and increased physical education at your child’s school and day care.

Dietary suggestions
Childhood obesity has doubled and, in some communities, quadrupled in recent years. Children and adolescents who are overweight have a higher risk of high blood pressure, high blood fat levels, type 2 diabetes and other serious conditions. 

If your child is overweight, talk with your doctor and a dietitian to determine what kinds of dietary changes you can make for your child and for your entire family’s heart health. Learn what a healthy weight would be for your child and how you can achieve that goal. Common guidelines for children include:

  • After age 2, switch children from whole milk to 1% or fat-free (skim) milk

  • Include fruits and vegetables in the diet so that your child learns that these foods will be part of the daily food plan

  • Set a healthy example by eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains yourself

  • Work with a dietitian so that you know what your child’s portions should look like, and share that knowledge with your child.

  • Avoid using snacks to reward your children. Instead, you can reward children with activities they enjoy.

  • Encourage your school to serve lunches that contain fruits and vegetables

  • Strictly limit sodas, and have your children drink low fat or no-fat milk instead.

These are just some of the things parents can do to create an environment that sets the stage for health and well being for the entire family.

American Academy of Pediatrics; The American Heart Association; Circulation, 2002;106:143; The Cardiovascular Health in Childhood Study.
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