Heart disease in children is not a common occurrence, but it is a growing trend. There is mounting concern over the threat to children’s cardiovascular health due to the increasing prevalence of obesity among the pediatric population.
In children, the diagnosis of being overweight or obese is made based on age, gender, height and weight, based on either the criteria of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization. Over the past 30-40 years, there has been a significant increase in the prevalence of overweight and obesity among children and adolescents. It is estimated that in the United States, one in every three kids is either overweight or obese, with similar estimates worldwide.
If you are concerned that you or your child may be overweight or obese, visit your primary care doctor, who will be able to evaluate and guide you as necessary. Also, consult with your physician if you or your child experience:
▪ Chest pain on exertion.
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▪ Unexplained fainting.
▪ Palpitations (unusual racing of the heart).
▪ Excessive fatigue or shortness of breath with exertion.
▪ Family history of cardiomyopathy (weakness of the heart muscle, enlarged heart, thickened heart muscle).
▪ Family history of sudden unexplained death prior to the age of 50 years.
▪ Family history of premature coronary artery disease or high cholesterol .
As in adults, children who are overweight or obese are also at risk for hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol. All of these impact the heart and are potentially avoidable by living a healthy lifestyle.
It is also known that overweight children are more likely to become obese adults, with associated illnesses and decreases in life expectancy. We thus have the responsibility of promoting heart health for our children to ensure they have the best possible lifelong outcomes.
How do we live this heart healthy life? This February, which celebrates Heart Health Month, every parent should sit back and think where their children are in the spectrum of overweight and obesity. If they fall into either of these groups, they should start a game plan that will work for the entire family. “What calories come in from food must go out as calories spent” should be the slogan of the day, as you encourage your kids to be more active.
The American Heart Association (AHA) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend at least 60 minutes of physical activity of moderate intensity each day with no more than two hours of sedentary activities such as watching television, using the computer or game consoles. Kids should also enjoy a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, while avoiding added sugar, saturated fat and excess salt.
This intervention, however, is not solely for the individual but for the family, the community and our nation. Numerous programs have been implemented in our state to increase the availability of healthier foods in our schools and promote increased physical activity among our youth. The result is certainly rewarding with increased physical fitness, decreased blood pressure, control of weight, decreased stress and overall improved quality of life and increased life expectancy.
This is an opportunity to discover the fun in living healthfully. Helpful tips and resources for the individual, family and community are available through the AHA at www.heart.org, the AAP (www.aap.org) and the Let’s Move initiative at www.letsmove.gov. Developing healthy lifestyle habits in childhood, as suggested by these sites and the Children’s Heart Center at UHealth, will lead to healthier habits in adulthood, decreasing the risk of illness and premature death.
Together we can help our children and our families live a lifestyle that’s heart healthy. As the children of today are the teachers, doctors, scientists and politicians of tomorrow,let us all take a pledge that we will move forward in the coming years as a healthy America. We can do it as a team if every parent is motivated and involved.
Juanita Hunter, M.D.,is a Pediatric Cardiology Fellow and Sethu Swaminathan, M.D., is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics-Cardiology in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.