Pump Up Heart Health from a Young Age

February is American Heart Month, and parents have been pumping me for questions regarding whether they should be doing anything for their children to prevent the onset of heart disease up the road. Well, let me get to the heart of the matter and provide some information on prevention of heart disease starting in childhood.

Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the U.S. Risk factors that can increase your chances of developing a heart problem include high blood pressure, being overweight or obese, being physically inactive and having a high blood level of cholesterol.  All of these can begin to develop in childhood.  A family history of any of these factors can put someone at an even greater – and possibly earlier – risk for heart disease problems.

So what can we do to reduce this risk beginning in early childhood?  

From a dietary standpoint, the name of the game is to reduce the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in your child’s diet as early as age two to reduce the chances of developing hypertension, high cholesterol or obesity.  The American Heart Association’s heart-healthy diet includes poultry, fish, lean meat and low fat dairy products such as skim or 2 percent milk. Reading food labels can ensure that the foods you buy are heart healthy.

Another way to stay heart healthy is to serve foods low in salt, since salt use is an acquired taste that can lead to increased risk of high blood pressure and stroke.  Use other herbs, spices and even lemon juice to make a dish tasty, or consider removing the salt shaker from the table, which is easier said than done. 

Making sure your children are on the move with daily exercise or physical activity is also a good way to stay heart healthy not just for your children but for all members of the family.

Of course the best way to stay on top of whether your child is developing risk factors for heart disease is to ask about blood pressure and weight measurements during your child’s checkups. Then you can work with their health care provider or a nutritionist to make changes in their diet or lifestyle to reduce those risks. 

Hopefully tips like this will not miss a beat when it comes to keeping your children heart healthy and reducing their chance of heart disease as adults.

Lewis First, M.D., is chief of Pediatrics at Vermont Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. You can also catch "First with Kids" weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at www.FletcherAllen.org/firstwithkids.