No longer an adults-only issue, heart health has become increasingly problematic for American children.
An array of factors has been deemed key to a healthy heart by the American Heart Association, including maintaining a healthy weight, being physically active on a regular basis, eating a healthy diet, not smoking and keeping blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels normal.
But half of U.S. kids meet just four or fewer of these health criteria, according to a report, Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics — 2012 Update, which was published in Circulation.
And, among those in high school, 30 percent of girls and 17 percent of boys do not get the recommended 60 minutes a day of physical activity, the report noted.
In addition, a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that one in five children had abnormal cholesterol levels, which prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics to issue new guidelines recommending that all children 9 to 11 years old be screened for high cholesterol levels.
“A number of things are happening to impact children’s heart health,” said Dr. Stephen R. Daniels, professor and chairman of the pediatrics department at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Aurora and a spokesman for the American Heart Association. “One is the increase in prevalence and severity of obesity.”
“Obesity drives a lot of risks in adults, and that seems to be true for children, too,” he added. “The concern is that we may now have a generation of children that are destined for heart disease as adults.”
More than one-third of America’s children are currently overweight or obese, according to the CDC. Nearly 20 percent are obese.
Children who are overweight or obese are far more likely to have high blood pressure than their normal-weight peers. They’re also more likely to have high cholesterol levels, according to the CDC.
Dr. Vivek Allada, clinical director of pediatric cardiology at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, explained that pediatric cardiology has been changing over the years. In the past, he said, adult-type heart disease was much rarer and congenital heart disease was more the norm for pediatric patients.
“In some sense, congenital heart disease is fixing plumbing, but acquired heart disease requires fixing the lifestyle,” Allada said. “We’re very good at fixing leaks or unclogging blocks, but fixing the lifestyle requires a multi-player team approach that involves the physician, the patient, the family and the school.”
Though children, like adults, can take medication to bring down their cholesterol levels, health experts agree that it’s more important to instill healthy lifestyle habits in children.
“You can’t replace heart-healthy living with a pill,” Allada pointed out. “This is a marathon, not a sprint, and you need your cholesterol down for your life. We want you to build good habits. You have to focus on diet and exercise. It’s also important to eliminate soda and simple sugars, not to smoke, and to watch your salt intake. There are multiple factors we have to take into account.”
Allada and Daniels agreed that heart-healthy living has to be a family affair.
“Parents need to find a way to make the healthiest choice the easiest choice,” Daniels said. “We didn’t all decide as a population to start having unhealthy lifestyles simultaneously; it’s an issue of convenience. We need to figure out how to work with or eliminate the unintended consequences of what we do every day.”
In the home, he said, that means parents have to pay attention to diet and activity levels. “Parents really are in charge of the home environment and have a tremendous opportunity to build a healthy environment at home,” Daniels explained. “Allow children to make choices among healthy options. It promotes a kind of self-efficacy and equips children to do better.”
As for physical activity, he said to make sure it’s something the whole family enjoys.
“Be active, but make it fun and enjoy it,” he advised. “Figure out what the kids like to do.”