Kids have amazing resiliency. And while it may seem like childhood naturally brings with it an endless stream of junk food and video games, science is showing us the importance of early cardiac health as the heart may not be as forgiving.
“In pediatric cardiology, much of the focus is on congenital heart disease, but the fact is that your child is much more likely to die of acquired heart disease in their lifetime” states Dr. Matthew Zussman, Medical Director of Pediatric Interventional Cardiology at the Florida Hospital for Children.
Dr. Zussman further explains why conversations about heart health must start young.
Heart disease can start early
Preventing heart disease should be a focus as early as possible, and the paradigm is shifting to support this discussion. “The medical community is finding that coronary artery disease, which can lead to a heart attack over time, can start much younger than was once thought,” says Dr. Zussman. Recent studies show the early stages of coronary artery disease can start as young as age 12.
These findings coincide with the staggering increase in childhood obesity rates. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that since the 1970s, the percentage of children with obesity has more than tripled in the United States- with one in five school-aged children (ages 6–19) considered obese today. With that, the rates of type 2 diabetes are also surging among youth. About 208,000 Americans under age 20 are estimated to carry this diagnosis.
Dr. Zussman says, “This is concerning because the risk of coronary artery disease and stroke are correlated to the amount of time with diabetes; if you get diabetes young, you have a much higher risk of a cardiovascular event earlier in life.”
Therefore, an abundance of unhealthy behaviors in childhood can pose serious consequences. From this, we can heed warning, but we can also be empowered by the fact that many of these problems can be reversed- and even entirely prevented- by developing a heart-healthy lifestyle in the formative years.
What we can do
“The good news is that in children, most early stages of coronary artery disease, and sometimes type 2 diabetes, are reversible with changes to diet and exercise alone,” says Dr. Zussman. But to do this, he adds, “This realization to live a more heart-healthy lifestyle must start young.”
Dr. Zussman shares his tips for teaching kids heart-healthy habits for lifelong health:
Let kids be kids (in moderation)
“Kids have to be kids- they can eat pizza and eat ice cream as treats or on special occasions, but not as part of a regular diet,” Dr. Zussman advises. From all fad diets over the years- no fat to no carb and everything in between – he says, “A healthy balanced diet that considers everything in moderation is best.”
Cut out sodas and sugary drinks
“When it comes to obesity, a clear threat – if not the biggest - to children in the American diet is high sugar beverages,” Dr. Zussman states. He says that many people are not aware of how many extra calories and sugars are in what we drink, and there is no good reason to put that much into your body.
Water is vital for every organ in your body. Soda, on the other hand, wreaks havoc by spiking blood sugar and promoting weight gain. Studies have shown a significantly decreased risk in having a fatal heart attack in men and women who drink five or more glasses of water per day. For these reasons, Dr. Zussman advises, “Encourage children to cut out sodas and other sugar-filled drinks and just drink water; this change alone could cut the rates of childhood obesity in half.”
Dr. Zussman says that exercise is a big factor in kids’ present and long-term heart health. The American Heart Association’s guidelines recommend that kids get at least 60-minutes of physical activity every day. “This doesn’t have to be full out cardiovascular exercise, just get kids active,” Dr. Zussman emphasizes.
He says that teens, however, need more intensity: “It’s recommended for teens to get at least 30- to 40-minutes of cardiovascular exercise (getting their heart rates up) at least four days per week.”
Limit screen time
“Sitting promotes a sedentary lifestyle, which is a major risk factor for developing heart disease and diabetes,” explains Dr. Zussman. Therefore, he recommends that parents limit screen time to one hour per day- including total time on TV, computers, tablets, reading devices, video games, and any electronics. Encourage kids to get up and keep moving for better heart health and overall wellbeing.
Dr. Zussman makes a great point, “Up to a child’s early teens, parents are the primary decision makers over the foods and activities in their children’s lives.” He adds that whatever the parents are eating, children will too: “Once kids are old enough to make their own choices, you want them to have had years of good habits and examples.”
The real key is getting a child excited about activity and exercise as well as buying, preparing and eating healthy foods. It is easier to set these habits at a young age than trying to change bad ones in adulthood.
Dr. Zussman concludes, “In general, if parents have questions about their children’s heart health, they shouldn’t hesitate to seek help.” He adds that Florida Hospital offers some of the best pediatric heart health promotion programs in the country including Healthy 100 Kids, which is offered to all children regardless of weight or health status.
These programs - and Dr. Zussman’s tips – can help children balance the forgiveness of youth with lifelong healthy habits that protect their hearts for years to come.