We tend to think of cardiovascular health as an adult issue. But experts say that parents should guide their children in heart-healthy lifestyles from the start.

“We have known for many years that the damage that culminates in coronary artery disease in adulthood begins in childhood,” says Dr. Susan Haynes, a SLUCare pediatric cardiologist. “However, the obesity crisis in children has certainly accentuated concerns. Those diseases that used to be relegated to adulthood—like hypertension, diabetes and obstructive sleep apnea—are now seen in our obese children with increasing frequency.”

A 2012 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that 29 percent of children in Missouri are overweight or obese. “Extrapolation from current data suggests that overweight in the young currently will result in 5 to 16 percent, or 100,000, new cases of adult coronary artery disease over the next 25 years,” says Dr. Wilson King, a pediatric cardiologist on staff at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center.

Haynes adds that overweight children are now so common, those who are within a ‘normal’ weight range may appear to be underweight. Therefore, parents need to be aware of their child’s growth, and where his or her body mass index (a ratio of weight to height) falls on stan-dard growth charts by age.

Cholesterol levels, once only checked among the adult population, are now a concern for children, too. Current recommendations from the National Institutes of Health recommend cholesterol screening for children between the ages of 9 and 11, 17 and 19, and 20 and 21.

“At certain levels, medications will be recommended, regardless of the age of the child,” Haynes says. “This typically occurs in those children with severely elevated cholesterol levels. More commonly, an elevated cholesterol level in a child can be the impetus for dietary changes throughout an entire family rather than the prompt for a new prescription. Since those habits ingrained in childhood typically persist into adulthood, this is an opportune time to make lifestyle changes.”

In fact, lifestyle choices and parents who model heart-healthy behaviors are key to healthy children becoming healthy adults. Regular exercise, a healthy diet and education about the dangers of smoking are important.

Haynes’ sister, Mary Ann Adams, is a stay-at-home parent to two young children. Adams’ advice is to not start offering screen time as a solution to whiny children. “It wasn't an option for our grandparents—and they survived. As toddlers, to decrease whining, I made sure mine had good naps and early bedtimes and that they got enough rest. I made sure they were fed regularly. I also didn't give them sweets—much—including juice, which can mess with the blood sugar.’

Physicians suggest that families develop these healthy lifestyles together, finding ways to enjoy regular physical activity, cooking meals that feature fresh, not processed, foods, and staying tobacco-free, King notes. “Remember, children learn through example.”

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