The biggest misconception about heart health in kids
Protecting your child's heart is about more than just diet and exercise
Heart disease is a leading cause of death among men and women in the U.S. Approximately one in 200 of those individuals have an inherited form of heart disease – meaning that individuals who look healthy, eat healthy and get plenty of exercise can still be at risk of having a heart attack.
Early detection, including cholesterol and blood pressure screenings, is an important part of maintaining heart health. These simple tests give doctors important insight into how a body is working, and what risks they may have of heart disease.
While more awareness is being raised about the importance of a healthy diet and exercise, parents might not be aware of the importance of a cholesterol screening for their child. After all, cholesterol isn't usually an issue in childhood – right? Sarah Blumenschein, M.D., a pediatric cardiologist at Children's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern, debunks that common misconception about a child's heart health.
"Children can develop high cholesterol as early as ages 5 or 6," she explains. "Research is well-documented that children with a family history of heart disease, particularly among immediate family members who experienced a heart attack in their 30s or 40s, can begin to exhibit symptoms of heart disease in adolescence."
Knowledge is power. Get your child screened.
"A child can look healthy, get plenty of exercise and eat a healthy diet and still have high cholesterol – particularly if they have a family history," says Dr. Blumenschein.
Dr. Blumenschein encourages parents to have their children screened around the time children enter school. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) agrees, recommending that all children, ages 9-11, be screened for high cholesterol.
"High cholesterol is a very treatable disease, but it is undertreated because there are no signs or symptoms until a heart attack," she states. "It's a disease that accelerates in your 20s or 30s, and the earlier its diagnosed and treated, the better your outcome will be."
You should talk to your child's pediatrician about other heart health screenings, including:
- Fasting blood glucose test
- Blood pressure
- Body weight and body mass index (BMI) screening
Pay attention to family history
"Family history is so important," says Dr. Blumenschein. "If you have any family history of an early coronary event or a stroke, that's a sign that you as a parent, and your children, should be screened."
If you're not sure of your own family history, now is the time to ask your immediate family members about their heart health. Speak with parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles to find out:
- Does anyone have heart disease?
- Has anyone ever had a heart attack?
- Has anyone ever had a stroke?
- At what age were they diagnosed with heart disease?
- At what age did they experience a stroke or heart attack?
Share these answers with your child's pediatrician (and your own primary care provider) to identify when it's best to have your child screened for heart disease.
Embrace a healthy lifestyle
Research has well documented the impact a healthy diet and active lifestyle can have on children's health and wellness. Primary care providers work closely with parents and families, educating them on how to build healthy lifestyles, make good choices when it comes to the food and drinks we choose, and how to make time for exercise in our daily routines.
Whatever your family history, make a healthy diet and regular physical activity a priority for your entire family. Dr. Blumenschein reminds parents that a healthy diet doesn't mean you have to deprive yourself or your child of family favorites.
"I'm not here to tell anyone that they can never eat pizza again or that they can only eat spinach and cucumbers," she says. "Families need to create a plan and a diet that makes sense for them, and one that will help keep them healthy and they will enjoy eating."
Dr. Blumenschein encourages parents and families to keep mealtimes, snacks and exercise fun:
- Enjoy favorites in moderation
- Make a family trip to the grocery store to pick out new fruits and vegetables to try
- Plan and prepare meals together
- Exercise as a family: Go for a weekend bike ride, explore a new area on a hike or just connect after work and school with a walk around the block
The Preventative Cardiology Clinic at Children's Health helps children manage high cholesterol and their risk of heart disease. Learn more about all pediatric cardiology and surgery services at the Heart Center.