Heart Disease: How To Reduce Your Child’s Risk

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Did you know that the beginnings of heart disease can be present in kids as young as 10 years old? If left untreated, these children can go on to develop heart disease in their 40s, 50s or 60s. The good news is that this process can be reversed with weight control, exercise, eating a heart-healthy diet and never smoking.

At Westchester Health Pediatrics, we routinely tell our parents that creating a healthy lifestyle for your children now will help decrease their chances of developing heart disease later.

Risk factors for heart disease

Mason Gomberg-001R WEB72

Mason Gomberg, MD

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:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • High blood level of cholesterol
  • Physical inactivity
  • Obesity
  • Family history of early-onset heart disease

A healthy diet: the most important way you can help your child avoid heart disease

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.

Learn if 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.

Cholesterol testing

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 strongly recommend that adopted children are screened periodically for blood lipid (fat) levels throughout their childhood.

3 important ways to help reduce the risk of heart disease in your child

  1. Nutrition

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.

  1. Physical Activity

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!

  1. Smoking/Tobacco

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 everyone 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 Pediatrics. 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.

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By Mason Gomberg, MD, a pediatrician with Westchester Health Pediatrics

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About the Author: ML Ball