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Raising heart-healthy kids

Three kids running outside.

The habits your children learn now could affect their heart health later in life.

Think heart health is solely an adult topic? Think again. Research suggests that the risk factors for heart disease begin to develop during childhood years.

Fortunately, you can help your kids reduce some of their risks by helping them develop healthy heart habits while they're young.

Heart disease risk factors that can affect kids

Some conditions that increase heart disease risk can actually begin in childhood. Among them:

  • Unhealthy cholesterol levels. American children and adolescents have higher blood cholesterol levels than young people their age in most other developed countries. And the rate of heart disease tends to keep pace with cholesterol levels, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). One study found early signs of hardening of the arteries in 7% of children between the ages of 10 and 15 years. The rate was twice as high among those between the ages of 15 and 20.
  • High blood pressure. An estimated 3.5% of all children and teens in the U.S. have high blood pressure, according to the AAP. Because it often has no symptoms, the AAP recommends children have blood pressure checks every year, starting at age 3.
  • Overweight and obesity. By age 7, more than half of high blood pressure is due to obesity, according to the AAP. This number rises to as high as 95% by the teenage years. Nearly 1 in 3 kids or teens in the U.S. is overweight or obese, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

What parents can do

There are a variety of things parents can do to help kids establish good heart health at an early age.

To start with, be a good role model. Not only will your kids likely follow your lead, your heart will benefit as well.

Also:

Play every day. Exercise can strengthen the heart and help with weight management, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Health experts generally recommend children and teens do 60 minutes or more of physical activity every day. That should include vigorous exercise for 20 to 30 minutes at least three times a week, according to the AAP. Parents should encourage exercise by helping kids find an activity that they really enjoy and by being active together as a family.

Eat heart-smart foods. Like exercising, eating well can help kids maintain a healthy weight and control cholesterol and blood pressure levels.

Very young children usually don’t need to watch their intake of fat. Fat is an essential nutrient that children need for growth and active play and should not be severely restricted, according to the AAP. By age 5, however, their overall food choices should mirrors yours. That means including heart-healthy foods like:

  • Low-fat dairy products.
  • Skinless chicken.
  • Fish.
  • Lean red meats.
  • Whole grains.
  • Fruits and vegetables.

Limit screen time. Smartphones, TVs and other screen-based devices are making kids more sedentary, according to the AHA. And being sedentary is tied to overweight and obesity.

Avoid tobacco. Smoking is a well-established risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Like other unhealthy habits, it can start during childhood. Encourage kids to stay away from cigarettes. And if you smoke, kick the habit for your own heart's sake.

Reviewed 12/8/2020

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