Childhood Illnesses: Colds…Chicken Pox…Heart Disease?!
Starting three years ago, it became routine to test all 9 to 11 year olds for cholesterol level. According to a December 2011 Pediatric News article, “…heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular problems in adulthood are often the end result of cardiovascular risk factors that went unrecognized throughout childhood…”1
I’m glad to see that we, as pediatricians, are acknowledging the fact that heart disease, like many other diseases, really starts in childhood. And while I fully support the screening process, I’m much more interested in prevention. What should we do during that first decade of our children’s lives to make the screening unnecessary? It’s all about diet and lifestyle.
Trending Toward Disease
For the past thirty years, child health has been going in the wrong direction. Childhood overweight and obesity has skyrocketed during the past 3 decades. And that trend is directly linked to the increased incidence of a variety of heart related disorders in children, most notably high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, and high cholesterol levels. This is a very serious problem, given that epidemiologists are proposing that life expectancy for this rising generation of children could be shortened by as much as eight years. So, what are the primary factors leading to these disturbing trends?
- Our reliance on convenient foods that are full of additives and sugar while deficient in nutrients. Our fast paced lifestyle has us purchasing more fast food, and more prepackaged foods to feed our families compared to previous generations.
- Our schools are largely feeding our children prepared, and often fried foods, offering minimal fruits and vegetables. Schools also rely heavily on snack and soda vending machines for revenue, at the expense of children’s health.
- Our children are leading sedentary, technology saturated lifestyles. With the average child spending about 7 hours using media daily (yikes!), our children are being deprived of needed physical activity. And schools have severely reduced or eliminated physical education in the curriculum.
Heart Disease Prevention Starts in Childhood
We need to make some fundamental changes in the way we feed our children. Don’t believe the myth that children don’t need to worry about what they eat until they grow older. We have known for years that the roots of heart disease begin in childhood. And remember, the habits they develop in childhood will persist into adulthood, so we want to instill the right habits now.
Here’s what we can do:
- Provide our children with a diet high in fruits and vegetables. Studies have shown that even as early as toddler age, our children’s diets are severely deficient in fruits and vegetables. It will take creativity given their finicky appetites, but there are numerous resources available. Check out “The Sneaky Chef” by Missy Chase Lapine or the website www.cancerproject.org for menu ideas.
- Provide more home cooked meals for our children, so that we can ensure that they are receiving freshly prepared and healthy ingredients in their meals. Studies have shown that children who eat more meals at home have lower rates of obesity and other health problems.
- Get our children exercising more. The recommended level of activity is 60 minutes of vigorous activity every day. I know it sounds daunting, but just getting them outside for free play will peak their natural tendency to exercise. And we can exercise with them. Remember to make it fun. Playing ball together, family walks, or even family P90X.
We often say that we want our children to have a better life than we have; so let’s give them a better legacy of health and longevity!
1) Splete, H. Test Cholesterol in all 9- to 11-year olds. Pediatric News. December 2011, Vol 45, No. 12.