What parents can do to protect children from heart disease

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The consequences of heart disease often do not appear until a person reaches adulthood. Why should busy parents think about it for their children?

“Because it is probably easier to prevent the development of cardiac risk factors than to try to eliminate them once they have developed,” said Dr. Sarah De Ferrante, a pediatric cardiologist at Boston Children’s. “Prevention is really key.”

Most people don’t think about risk factors during childhood, said de Ferrante, also an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. “But I think it’s really essential that we all start doing that.”

According to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association Circulation, only 2.2% of people ages 2 to 19 had “perfect” scores on a scoring system that included diet, physical activity, and body mass index. And while nearly 57% of 2- to 5-year-olds had high scores, it dropped to 14% between 11 to 19 years old.

Protecting a child’s heart health can start with a focus on the mother’s health during or even before pregnancy, said Dr. Amanda Marma Perak, senior author of the circulatory study and pediatric cardiologist at Ann and Robert Lowery Children’s Hospital in Chicago. “If you have a child and you haven’t thought about their heart health, it’s time to start,” she said.

Perac and de Ferrante offered this advice.

starts eating

Healthy eating habits are essential to a healthy heart. It can also be difficult to detect.

“I think first understand what is healthy food?” Perak, who is also an assistant professor of pediatrics and preventive medicine at Northwestern University, said. I recently helped write an update of the AHA’s score system for heart health now known as Life’s Essential 8. It weighs eight factors that contribute to heart health for children and adults: diet, physical activity, nicotine exposure, sleep health, body weight, and blood fats (cholesterol and other fats). ), blood sugar and blood pressure.

To help families understand the components of a healthy diet, Perak uses the Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate method. He envisions a diet in which half the food would be vegetables and fruits, a quarter lean protein, and a quarter whole grains, with a side of dairy.

be patient

For picky people, a light touch can pay off, De Ferrante said. I’ve found it more effective to offer fruit and vegetables first, when kids are most hungry, “rather than getting into a big fight” over eating a certain amount.

It’s a long game, de Ferrante said, that may require exposing children to healthy foods multiple times. “Try, try, try. Try again. Be persistent.”

keep moving

Perak said exercise can start at a young age. “Even for a baby, you can consider getting him active in terms of tummy time and not being tied up in suspenders and high chairs for too long.”

Whether it’s through a formal classroom or just playing in a park, de Ferrante said, physical activity should be included in the family’s schedule. But the activity should be age-appropriate and in line with the child’s interests.

Perak has patients who enjoy dancing or just doing simple exercises at home. Perak said organized sport can be “very beneficial”. But if they are stressed too hard, they can also increase stress and reduce sleep time.

sleep on it

A sleeping baby may be less likely to be physically active or may crave unhealthy food in search of a burst of energy. Lack of sleep, for example, is linked to obesity in children.

According to the AHA, the daily amount of sleep a child needs to promote recovery, improve brain function and reduce chronic disease risk varies by age: 12 to 16 hours (including naps) for ages 4 to 12 months; 11 to 14 hours for ages 1 to 2 years; 10 to 13 hours for ages 3 to 5; 9 to 12 hours for ages 6 to 12; And 8 to 10 hours for ages 13 to 18.

Create a bedtime routine that allows time for calming activities. “There is definitely research showing that consistency around bedtime routines is associated with getting enough sleep in children,” Perak said.

Children can have high blood pressure, too

Knowing your child’s blood pressure numbers is important, de Ferrante said, but measuring it in children is difficult. The numbers for what is considered high blood pressure vary by age, height, and gender.

“Your pediatrician has to be your go-to for that,” she said.

Understand the importance of mental health

De Ferrante said mental health is important to heart health. Stressful events in childhood have been linked to unhealthy behaviors and cardiovascular problems later in life.

Over the past two years of the pandemic, De Ferrante has seen the effects of stress in real time. “I’ve seen a lot of young people show up at my pediatric cardiology clinic with high blood pressure or other symptoms like chest pain, heart palpitations or dizziness.”

Parents should monitor their children for these and other signs of distress and seek help if needed, according to the 2021 Surgeon’s Report on Youth Mental Health that advises young adults, parents, professionals and educators.

Be ready for change

As with anything related to parenting, De Ferrante said, parents need to stay alert.

A decade ago, for example, the health threat from vaping was unknown. Now, scientific evidence indicates that e-cigarette use can harm cardiovascular health.

“We have to be smart,” she said, “because the world is constantly changing.”

Don’t be hard on yourself

“Think of this as a long game,” De Ferrante emphasized. “There’s always another day to try to eat a healthy diet, get more sleep, or go out and be physically active.”

She said that “in general, it’s about being good in general – not perfect.”

If you have questions or comments about this American Heart Association news story, please email [email protected].

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