Childhood obesity can be a significant risk factor for heart disease, especially when it’s accompanied by factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes or prediabetes, physical inactivity and an unhealthy diet. The first line of defense against childhood obesity includes incorporating more physical exercise and nutritious foods into a child’s lifestyle.
However, obesity is not the only risk factor for heart disease. Some children have a higher hereditary likelihood of developing high cholesterol or blood pressure. Some have heart defects present at birth that require lifelong monitoring and treatment. Others may suffer from chronic illnesses – like type 1 diabetes – or genetic syndromes that raise their risk.
Screening for heart disease in children is important, especially if they have known risk factors, including:
- Being obese or overweight
- Diabetes or another chronic condition
- A family history of premature heart disease, high cholesterol or diabetes
- An unknown family history (in the case of adoption)
If your child meets any of these criteria, talk to his or her doctor about preventive screenings. If your child has a congenital heart defect, he or she probably already undergoes regular heart health checks, but you should always discuss any new symptoms or concerns with the doctor.
Common screening tests for children include:
- Fasting lipid profile, which measures your child’s total cholesterol, “bad” LDL cholesterol, “good” HDL cholesterol and triglycerides (blood fats). For this test, your child will avoid food and drinks (except water) for 12 hours and undergo a blood draw in the doctor’s office or lab.
- Fasting blood glucose test, which measures the amount of sugar in your child’s blood, can be performed at the same time as your child’s fasting
- Blood pressure test, which is usually performed at every routine doctor’s appointment. Your child’s nurse or doctor will wrap an inflatable cuff around your child’s arm, inflate it (which squeezes the arm) and then gradually release the air as he or she takes the reading.
- Body weight and body mass index (BMI) screening. Your child’s nurse or doctor will record his or her weight from the scale, calculate BMI based on your child’s height and gender, and check which percentile he or she falls into on a chart of children of the same age.
The doctor will also ask questions about your child’s diet, level of physical activity and family history. These screenings are an important step toward preventing heart disease in your child and reducing the risk that he or she will develop it as an adult.
Additionally, even if your child does not need to lose weight, offering a nutritious diet – including lots of fruits and vegetables, fiber-rich whole grains, fish, nuts and beans and minimal saturated fat, trans fat, refined sugar and sodium – is a great step toward keeping your whole family heart-healthy. Low-fat dairy products and skinless poultry are also heart-smart additions; just limit baked goods, processed foods, sugary beverages, large amounts of starchy carbohydrates and red meat.
Physical activity is another preventive powerhouse, as it strengthens the heart muscle, improves circulation, burns excess calories, increases the body’s levels of good (HDL) cholesterol and makes the whole body stronger. Something as simple as a family bike ride or some backyard soccer – several times a week – can make a big difference.
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