The fight against heart disease is largely focused on preventative care. Maintaining a normal body weight, not smoking, participating in daily physical activities and keeping cholesterol, glucose and blood pressure levels normal are key factors that decrease the likelihood of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.
But only half of children in the U.S. meet AHA heart health standards, according to a recent report published in Circulation, a cardiovascular disease journal associated with AHA and Wayne State.
Specifically, cholesterol has been observed with alarming frequency in children. A report released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded one in every five American children has abnormal cholesterol levels, and more than a third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese.
“There has certainly been a significant increase in the amount of children I am seeing with elevated risk factors for heart health issues in the past two decades,” said Thomas L’Ecuyer, Medical Director of Cardiac Transplant Services at DMC Children’s Hospital of Michigan and associate professor of Pediatrics at WSU’s School of Medicine. “The number of children with high blood pressure and elevated cholesterol levels has only increased since I began as a doctor and child obesity is certainly reaching an epidemic.”
The CDC reports that childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years, with nearly 20 percent of children today being considered obese.
L’Ecuyer said that the rise of the digital age has increased the time children sit in front of a television or a computer rather than be active. The disappearance of physical education classes due to budget cuts exacerbates the problem, he added. And these school-related issues are condensed in areas experiencing economic challenges.
“Schools are now providing meals to children, specifically in urban areas. Many parents living in these areas cannot afford breakfast and lunch for their children and are left focusing on what schools are offering,” L’Ecuyer said. “These meals being provided are not very healthy, with high calorie, salt, and fat content. This food is feeding our children, and it needs to be better examined with health in mind.”
Along with healthy food choices, activity in schools needs to be promoted to decrease obesity and cholesterol levels in children, L’Ecuyer said.
“Sports have become increasingly more competitive, which can cause difficulties among the children who are not necessarily the fastest or the best,” he said. “By providing more choices to get active in safe environments that are less competitive, schools can be more effective with getting kids healthier.”
Recently, a coalition of health advocacy groups urged the U.S. government to improve school resources for healthy students in an attempt to target childhood obesity. Although the recommendations were made by the Healthy Schools Campaign and Trust for America’s Health, over 70 groups supported the effort, including the National Education Association.
In a report directed at the U.S. Department of Education, the coalition urged more grants be offered to promote healthy initiatives, funding of wellness programs and support for ongoing efforts that are aimed at improving nutrition and exercise.
Along with school, the home is a key place where heart health can be improved for many children, L’Ecuyer said.
“Parents often play a large role in the health of their children, especially in the early stages,” he said. “Obesity is often a sensitive subject and it can be hard for a parent to hear their child is growing more rapidly than normal.”
“It is important to not feel criticized. The more accepting a parent is to the advice of a pediatrician, the more successful the both can be at getting the child onto the path of healthy habits for life,” he said.
L’Ecuyer also said that although much of what a parent and child need to do to maintain a healthy heart is outside of prescribing medication, it is important to have a pediatrician involved in the process. A professional can help diagnose developing risk factors and provide information on effective solutions, he said.