Teach your children well: heart health important in youth, too

Heart disease is often associated with an aging population, leaving the younger or more youthful-feeling set to take for granted their low likelihood of developing major risk factors, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

Much is made of prevention for adults. But poor habits can develop early on in childhood – and the ill effects can persist into adulthood. Two health studies underscore the importance of modeling and encouraging healthy behaviors for children, from not smoking to eating less sugar.

These recommendations may seem obvious, but the detrimental effects of smoke and sugar extend far beyond childhood. One study found that preschoolers who have a parent who smokes are at greater risk for developing high blood pressure. These children likely won’t develop heart disease at a young age, but hypertension will follow them into their adult years, when it could be a major contributing factor to heart disease.

Another study, conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), found that children who consume larger quantities of sugar are more likely to enter into adulthood with bad numbers: high levels of bad cholesterol, low levels of good cholesterol and elevated triglycerides. Taken together, this spells trouble later on in the form of major risk for developing heart disease.

To help lead the young people in your life toward better heart health, we’re focusing on three major factors for developing heart disease and what you can do to promote – and model – healthy habits.

Smoking

We all know that inhalation of cigarette smoke is detrimental to the smoker and to those who are in proximity of the individual when smoking. But as a recent study in Germany found, preschool-aged children who have one parent who smokes are at risk for having elevated blood pressure. Children with one smoking parent produced blood pressure readings in the top 15 percent of the sample – 4,200 children younger than age 5 living in Germany. According to the American Heart Association, exposure to secondhand smoke increases the risk of developing heart disease. Providence’s own James Beckerman, M.D., a cardiologist with Providence Heart and Vascular Institute, advocates putting down cigarettes both for your own health and for the health of your family and friends.

Sugar

What youngster doesn’t love sugar? Unlimited access to and careless consumption of sweets, however, will only lead to a very literal kind of heartache later on. For adolescents, the risk is particularly great. The CDC found in its study of nearly 2,200 teenagers that the average daily consumption of processed sugar amounted to nearly 500 calories – equivalent to more than half a cup of white sugar. Teenagers whose daily sugar intake amounted to more than 30 percent of their calories were more likely to have lower HDL (good cholesterol), higher LDL (bad cholesterol) and higher triglyceride blood levels.

Parents are the gatekeepers of the kitchen. And while you can’t keep continuous tabs on your teen to ensure they’re eating healthfully, you can provide nutritious choices – and keep the junk food out of the pantry.

Inactivity

If you don’t exercise, you’re putting yourself at risk for coronary heart disease – period. Chances are if you’re not engaging in physical activity, the little people around you may be emulating your sedentary lifestyle. Inactivity can lead to obesity, yet another factor for developing heart disease. Don’t risk it. Dr. Beckerman offers a simple solution from his book, “The Flex Diet”: Walk after dinner. His recommendation is to commit to one 20-minute post-dinner walk each week. From there, you can step it up. If an after-dinner walk isn’t your thing, find out what is – and be an example for the young people in your life, whether they’re your children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews or neighborhood kids.