Most of us think of heart disease as a problem that older people (or at least adults) have. However, children are increasingly becoming victims of heart disease, and at progressively earlier ages. Although heart disease is still relatively uncommon among children, more kids than ever are obese, and this has caused an uptick in factors that lead to heart disease.
The statistics are sobering:
25% of adolescents have two or more heart disease risk factors
20% of adolescents have borderline or high blood pressure
15% of adolescents have borderline or high “bad” LDL cholesterol levels
25% of adolescents either have or are close to having Type 2 diabetes
33% of adolescents are overweight or obese
The American Heart Association has identified seven key factors important to maintaining a healthy heart. These include following a healthy diet, practicing physical activity on a regular basis, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking and keeping levels of glucose, blood pressure and cholesterol normal. However, only four out of these seven factors are met by half of American children, putting them at greater risk of heart disease.
Dr. Stephen R. Daniels, a spokesman for the American Heart Association, said, “A number of things are happening to impact children’s heart health. 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. The concern is that we may now have a generation of children that are destined for heart disease as adults.”
A new study published in the journal Pediatrics has found a simple way to measure a child’s cardiovascular health. By calculating the ratio of triglycerides to HDL (the “good” cholesterol), doctors can determine the likelihood of a child having damaged or stiffened arteries. The study was based on 900 children and young adults and was performed by researchers at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Triglycerides are an indicator of fat and sugar in the bloodstream. High triglycerides and low HDL are indicators of a poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle, and previous studies have shown a link between these and stiffening of the arteries in adults. This study was the first to indicate a similar result in children.
Because so many children are now being found to have factors that increase heart disease risk, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children between the ages of 9 and 11 be screened for high cholesterol and triglycerides.
In some ways, physicians find it easier to treat congenital heart disease, as it is a matter of what one physician referred to as “plumbing.” According to Dr. Vivek Allada, the clinical director of pediatric cardiology at the Pittsburgh’s Children’s Hospital, “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.”
The consumption of sugar is one of the major contributors to high triglycerides. Experts are trying to curb kids’ intake of sweet beverages such as soda and juice, both of which are extremely high in sugar.
Although statins have been used to bring down cholesterol levels, they are not necessarily effective in reducing heart attack risk. Allada added, “You can’t replace heart-healthy living with a pill. 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.”
Experts stress the importance of parents instilling healthy habits in their children at an early age. Daniels explained, “Parents really are in charge of the home environment and have a tremendous opportunity to build a healthy environment at home. Allow children to make choices among healthy options. It promotes a kind of self-efficacy and equips children to do better.”