Preventing Heart Disease Begins in Childhood
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.
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.
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
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
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.