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For a Healthy Heart, Get an Early Start

Here's a little quiz for anyone with a heart:

At what age can a child first show signs of heart disease?

a.) 18

b.) 13

c.) 8

d.) 3

If you said "d," raise a glass of low-fat milk and go to the head of the class; heart disease can start at a surprisingly young age.

"Kids look so healthy that you don't really think about whether they have risk factors for cardiovascular disease later in life," says Dr. Christine L. Williams, director of the Children's Cardiovascular Health Center at Columbia University in New York City.

"But it's a process that begins very early in childhood. You can begin to see fatty streaks in the aorta as early as 3 years of age," she says. "The battle's often lost in the first few years, and it can be very hard to undo the damage."

Coronary heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the United States, causing about 525,000 deaths a year.

Williams and other pediatric heart specialists think they can cut that number by stressing healthy lifestyles early in childhood.

So, the American Heart Association recently published new guidelines for doctors that emphasize education and information on healthy heart habits for young patients and their families.

Among the recommendations:

  • Get a family history of heart disease and stroke when the child is still a newborn.

  • Between the ages of 2 and 6, begin cholesterol screening for children whose parents have high cholesterol.

  • Start checking the child's blood pressure at age 3.

  • Encourage active physical play and discourage sedentary behavior.

"By kindergarten, it's nice to know which children have a tendency to be on the high-risk side," says Williams, who chaired the committee that developed the guidelines. "With a lot of them, all you might have to do is switch them to low-fat dairy products."

Dr. Hugh Allen, physician-in-chief at Columbus Children's Hospital in Ohio, says the heart association hopes to duplicate the success of the anti-smoking campaign that began in the 1960s and cut the rate of smoking in half over the next 30 years.

"Very much, I would like to see the same kind of response," he says. "You might think of this as an immunization. If we know there are environmental factors associated with the disease, and we can develop lifestyle changes that will affect it later in life, that is certainly an effective approach."

For children, those lifestyle changes must begin at home and in school, both doctors say.

"The obese kid usually sits at the table with an obese family," Allen says.

Williams agrees: "The whole family's got to get involved. This is really a whole-family issue."

Schools should play their part, Allen says, by offering healthy meals in the cafeteria and cutting out the high-fat junk food that many now make available. And regular physical education, which has fallen victim to cutbacks over the past 20 years, needs to make a comeback.

"The sad thing is, I saw a couple of obese kids this morning, and they only have gym once a week at school," Williams says.

More doctors also need to make education a regular part of their routine -- something Allen says many are already doing.

"I know a lot of family practitioners try to work preventative information into their office material," he says. "Some do a better job than others, but everybody does have some opportunity. We can whittle away at it every day."

If Allen had his way, he says, there would be a tax of at least $5 on every pack of cigarettes. Schools would serve only healthy food.

"And I would encourage physical activity as a reward, not as a duty," he says. "Let's not use food as a reward, let's use physical activity as a reward: 'Good job on your homework -- now you can go out and play.'"

What To Do

Read the newly revised guidelines for heart-healthy children from the American Heart Association. Are you at risk of a heart attack? Take this simple quiz to find out.


Reference Source 101

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