Heart disease is increasing among children

Lucinda Wright, M.D., pediatric cardiologist, explains why more kids are developing heart disease and how to prevent troubles later in life.

lucinda wrightLucinda Wright, M.D., pediatric cardiologist with Norton Children’s Hospital and University of Louisville Physicians, answers some common questions about preventing heart disease in kids.

Is preventable heart disease among children increasing? Why?

Preventable heart disease (the type of heart disease that can be avoided with lifestyle changes) is increasing among children. This increase is largely believed to be due to a rise in childhood obesity, which is a known risk factor for preventable heart disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of children with obesity in the United States has more than tripled since the 1970s. Currently, about one in five school-age children (ages 6 to 19) have obesity. This increase is concerning because of the known association between obesity and elevated blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels and Type 2 diabetes beginning in childhood and persisting into adulthood. All of these are known risk factors for the development of early heart disease.

What are the best things parents can do to help prevent heart disease in their children?

Parents can help reduce their child’s risk for heart disease by teaching healthy lifestyle habits early in life. Lifestyle behaviors associated with heart disease definitely start during childhood. Habits such as eating a well-balanced and healthy diet, maintaining an active lifestyle with regular aerobic exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and not using tobacco should be taught at a very young age.

At the heart of every child is a champion

A champion deserves children’s heart specialists dedicated to providing a team approach to care, and that’s what you’ll find at Norton Children’s Heart Center.

Most important, I think parents should remember that they are their child’s first role model and should lead by example. Children learn what they see at home, and parents should model the healthy lifestyle they want for their children. Plan physical activities together, spend time outside together, let them see you exercising and include them in the activities you enjoy. Plan healthy meals together, grocery shop together and cook together.

What should parents avoid when it comes to trying to prevent heart disease in their children?

Parents should avoid waiting too long to teach healthy-heart habits to their children. Often healthy habits feel like a punishment for a child when sudden change is needed due to the development of a health problem. It’s never too early to discuss heart-healthy habits with your child.

What kinds of questions should parents ask pediatricians when their children have well visits?

Education and prevention are key to lowering a child’s risk for early heart disease. Annual well child checkups with a pediatrician are the best way to screen for risk factors and monitor any developing conditions in your child.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children and teens have an assessment of height, weight, blood pressure and body mass index (BMI) annually. Each childhood well visit also should include a review of lifestyle habits, such as tobacco smoke exposure, exercise, diet and sleep habits.

The current recommendation for cholesterol screening is to check once between ages 9 to 11 years and then again at ages 17 to 21. Children ages 2 and older with certain additional risk factors may be screened at any time. Your child’s pediatrician is trained to know when and if additional screening is needed based on the latest guidelines for heart health screening in children.

What do you wish parents understood about preventable heart disease in children that doesn’t get much attention?

Genetics and family history also play a big role in a child’s risk of developing heart disease. Be knowledgeable about your family’s health history and communicate that important information to your child’s pediatrician.

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