Eight ways to keep kids heart healthy

Today’s guest blogger is Frances Zappalla, D.O., a pediatric cardiologist at the Nemours Cardiac Center at the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, De.

We often think of heart disease as an adult condition, but heart disease starts in childhood. Teens, preteens and even little kids have heart-disease risk factors that once only happened to adults.  Autopsies on soldiers from the Korean and Vietnam Wars showed evidence of heart disease in young men in their early 20s. If they had certain risk factors, which included smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, there was more plaque in their arteries.  

We know that treating high blood pressure and high cholesterol early in childhood can protect at-risk children from future heart disease.  The first line of treatment is a healthy diet, daily exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight.

Here are my top tips for keeping kids’ hearts healthy:

  1.  All children should have blood pressure done at every doctor visit or at least once a year starting at the age of two years. Healthy blood pressure levels for teens depends on their age, gender and height. For example, healthy blood pressure for a  13-year-old girl of average height is around 109/64 and for a boy, around 110/63.
  2. All children should get a baseline lipid panel or get their cholesterol level by the age of 10 years. The ideal LDL cholesterol level for kids and teens is below 110. They should get tested sooner if they are at high risk for heart disease. High risk factors include:
    a. If there is a family history (especially a parent, aunt, or uncle) with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or heart disease (stroke, stent, by-pass surgery, or heart attacks before the age of 50 in men or before the age of 60 in women).
    b. Child has diabetes (type 1 or type 2)
    c. Child has a BMI (body mass index) over the 85th percentile
    d. Child has kidney disease
    e. Child has/had cancer
  3. Drinks of choice for all children should be water and milk (one percent or skim after the age of two years).  If you start young infants/toddlers on water instead of apple juice, they will actually enjoy water when they get older instead of developing a sweet tooth.
  4. Juices - even orange and apple juice - should be limited to four ounces per day for toddlers and young children, and six ounces per day for older children and teens. It’s always better to EAT your fruit than drink your fruit.
  5. Soda, sweetened ice tea, lemonade, etc. should all be served sparingly – once or twice a week – not a daily basis.
  6. Children and teens should not consume energy drinks.
  7.  Exercise – at least 60 minutes a day. Activities can be as easy as running, swimming, kicking a soccer ball, or jump rope. When the weather is bad outside, kids can do jumping jacks, sit-ups, push-ups, or workout videos.     
  8. Limit screen time to NO MORE than 2 hours a day. This includes TV, handheld devices, and computer outside of homework. Regarding the Wii and Xbox – only if the child is actually up and moving all extremities (not just thumbs), does it count as exercise.

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