The consequences of heart disease often don’t show up until someone is well into adulthood. So why should busy parents be thinking about it with their kids?
“Because it’s probably way easier to prevent the development of cardiac risk factors than to try and get rid of them once they’ve developed,” says Dr. Sarah de Ferranti, a pediatric cardiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Prevention really is key.”
Most people don’t think about risk factors during childhood, says de Ferranti, who also is an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. “But I think it’s actually essential that we all start doing that.”
According to a recent study in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, only 2.2% of 2- to 19-year-olds had “optimal” 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, among 11- to 19-year-olds, that fell to 14%.
Protecting a child’s heart health can begin with a focus on a mother’s health during or even before pregnancy, says Dr. Amanda Marma Perak, senior author of the Circulation study and a pediatric cardiologist at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. But if you have a child and you haven’t been thinking about their heart health, “now is the time to start,” she adds.
Perak and de Ferranti offered this advice.
It starts with eating
Healthy eating habits are crucial for heart health. They also can be challenging to figure out.
“I think first is just understanding, what is healthy food?” says Perak, who is also an assistant professor of pediatrics and preventive medicine at Northwestern University. She recently helped write an update to the scoring system for heart health now known as Life’s Essential 8. It weighs eight contributors to heart health for children and adults: diet, physical activity, nicotine exposure, sleep health, body weight, blood lipids (cholesterol and other fats), blood glucose and blood pressure.
To help families understand what makes up a healthy diet, Perak uses the Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate method. It envisions a diet where half the food is vegetables and fruits, a quarter is lean protein and a quarter is whole grain, with a side of dairy.
For picky eaters, a light touch can pay off, de Ferranti adds. She’s found it effective to