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Childhood Heart Health

Keeping hearts young

Family eating dinnerWhen parents watch kids playing, they tend to enjoy the moment and not think too far into the future. One of the last things on their minds is their kid's health as adults. Even so, parents can affect their children’s future health in positive ways by providing the foundation for making the right lifestyle choices in adulthood.

"We need to understand the long term risks of decisions made during childhood," says Beth Volin, MD, a pediatrician at Rush. "Risk factors for adult heart disease can start in childhood, so it makes so much sense to start early to curb these risks."

"Most patterns of eating, exercise and other lifestyle choices are established early in life. That does not mean that they can't be changed in adulthood, but you're giving your child a head start by teaching and modeling good lifestyle choices when they're young," says Volin.

"You're also giving their bodies a head start. Studies have shown that plaque build up associated with arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, is already present in some children," says Volin. "I have young patients who already have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes."

Some of the risk factors for future heart disease include:

  • Obesity
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Being exposed to secondhand smoke
    • "Recent studies are showing the link between exposure to secondhand smoke during childhood and heart disease later in life," Volin notes.
  • Smoking
  • "Unfortunately, even though the dangers are widely known, some adolescents pick up smoking," says Volin. "If either of their parents smoke, the children are at an increased risk for taking up smoking."

Setting an example

"Children often model their behavior after what they see their parents and older siblings doing. This is why its so important to set a good example. The family needs to set the pattern of healthy choices, which will establish a base for the childrens' choices as they grow and age," says Volin. 

Exercise

  • Try family activities that include aerobic activity
    • Go for walks together
    • Play games together
    • Participate in sports together
  • Reduce family and individual screen time (television, computer, videogames, etc.)
  • Replace this time with social and physical activities

Eating

  • Eat together as a family, taking your time to enjoy conversation and food
  • Eating more slowly can help you eat less
  • Be creative incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet
    • Read Eat a Colorful for information on the importance of adding more fruits and vegetable to your diet.
    • Read Making Food Fun for creative ideas for getting kids more interested in food and nutrition.
  • Replace junk foods with whole foods snacks like fruits, nuts, cut vegetables (carrots, celery, etc.) and dried fruits (raisins, apricots, prunes, etc.)
  • Cut down on sugar
  • Avoid high sugar drinks (sodas, juices and juice drinks)
  • Avoid sugary snacks (candy, high-sugar cereals, cakes, high-sugar granola bars, etc.)

Smoking

  • Set the example by not smoking or quitting if you do smoke or use tobacco
  • If you have trouble quitting, dont expose your children to secondhand smoke

"These are lifestyle changes that can and should be carried into adulthood," says Volin. "I can't stress enough the importance of establishing these patterns early and reinforcing them through your own example. This can make an incredibly positive impact on the future health of your children."

February 2007