February is heart health month. Fortunately we, as pediatricians, don’t see a lot of heart-related problems in children, so our job is not necessarily to diagnose and treat the manifestations of heart disease as our colleagues who treat adults do, but to rather start the process of preventing heart disease in the first place.
Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) has long been known to be an illness that mainly affects adults. Most people are aware of certain risk factors, such as smoking or having an elevated cholesterol level, which can increase the risk for a heart attack. Newer research has discovered that some of the changes in blood vessels that can lead to a heart attack can actually start as early as childhood. If those changes are identified early enough, there is even a chance of reversing the process before it becomes permanent.
Cholesterol Screening Isn’t Just for Adults
Cholesterol screening is a big part of that prevention process. Cholesterol screening begins by asking about the family history. If there is a history of CVD in family members, it is important to discuss this with your child’s physician. Some types of cholesterol disorders can actually be inherited and should be screened for early in childhood. But even without any known family history, it is still possible for a child to have elevated levels of cholesterol. Children who are overweight are at increased risk for high cholesterol levels.
The guidelines for cholesterol screening in childhood have recently changed and have been endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics. One major change is the recommendation for universal cholesterol screening for children at ages 9-11 and 17-21.
Healthy Lifestyle, Healthy Heart
Another major risk factor for developing heart disease is smoking. Although children don’t smoke themselves, they can be exposed to the harmful effects of smoking if their caregivers smoke – even if they smoke outside. In the short term, exposure to secondhand smoke increases the risk for problems, such as sudden infant death, asthma and ear infections. In the long term, those children whose parents smoke are more likely to start smoking themselves later in life.
My advice to parents who smoke is to stop smoking, not only for their own health, but for the health of their child. As children become teenagers and young adults, part of their routine check-ups center on the discussion of healthy lifestyle decisions, such as avoiding tobacco products due to the long-term harmful effects they pose.
As mentioned above, anyone who provides health care for children has the first opportunity to talk about healthy lifestyle decisions because once bad habits are formed, they are difficult to break. Children learn those healthy behaviors from their caregivers, so it is important to model healthy living for them. This involves things like diet and exercise – paying attention to the foods that we eat and the activities we pursue with an emphasis on healthy foods and an active lifestyle.
As part of February Heart Month, I encourage you to see your doctor and see if you are at risk for any heart-related problems, if you have not done so recently. And if you have young children at home, think about ways you can help them avoid heart problems themselves, and be sure to visit with their healthcare provider on a regular basis as well.