Heart disease is not a major cause of death among children and teenagers, but as we all know it is the largest cause of death among adults worldwide.
The disease process that affects the arteries and cause heart attacks and stroke namely the atherosclerosis starts very early in life. By controlling the risk factors that affect children early in life, the risk of heart disease later in life can be lowered. Congenital heart diseases (heart defects you are born with) cannot be changed, but better tests and treatments are now available for children with these types of heart problems.
Children and teenagers can lower their risk of getting heart disease by changing or controlling the risk factors that can lead to heart disease later in life as mentioned before:
• High blood pressure
• High cholesterol
• Physical inactivity
Again, some of these risk factors can be changed, treated, or modified, and some cannot. But it is important to understand that prevention is the best way to avoid a heart problem later in life. Controlling as many risk factors as possible, starting in childhood, will help reduce the risk of developing heart disease as an adult.
High blood pressure
Fewer than 3% of children have high blood pressure. But high blood pressure is a serious condition in childhood, especially if it is not detected. It is wise to make sure that the child's blood pressure is checked at his or her yearly check-up.
What causes high blood pressure in children?
High blood pressure (hypertension) in children is not a congenital heart disease, but it can have a hereditary link. For that reason, children born into families with a history of high blood pressure need to have their blood pressure watched with special care.
Most cases of high blood pressure in children are usually the result of another disease, like heart or kidney disease. This is called secondary hypertension. Less often, children have what is called primary (or essential) hypertension. This means that the real cause of high blood pressure is not known.
Less than 15 per cent of children have high cholesterol levels, but studies have shown that fatty plaque buildup begins in childhood and progresses slowly into adulthood. This disease process is called atherosclerosis. In time, atherosclerosis leads to heart disease, which is the single biggest cause of death worldwide.
What causes high cholesterol in children and teenagers?
In some cases, high cholesterol runs in families. This is called familial hypercholesterolemia. About 1 per cent to 2 per cent of children have this condition, and they should have their cholesterol levels checked before they are five-years old. Other risk factors for high cholesterol include obesity, high blood pressure, and smoking. Unless the child has any of these risk factors, most children and teenagers do not need to have their cholesterol levels checked until age 20.
To reduce the risk of fatty buildup in the arteries, the child should:
• Get plenty of exercise. Encourage them to exercise 30 to 60 minutes on most days of the week.
• Eat foods low in cholesterol and fat. Have your child eat more breads, pasta, cereals, and fresh fruits and vegetables. (Note: One should not restrict how much fat children eat if they are younger than two years old. Infants need fat for growth and development. After the age of two, children should start to eat fewer calories from fat.)
• Know the dangers of cigarette smoking.
• Learn to control weight, diabetes, or high blood pressure, if the child has any of these conditions.
According to the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) in United States, more than 3.6 million middle and high school students smoke cigarettes, and nearly 4,000 children under age 18 try their first cigarette every day. In fact, 9 out of 10 smokers had started smoking before they finished high school. This means that if children can stay smoke-free in school, they will probably never smoke.
More than 90,000 people die each year from heart diseases caused by smoking. Among young people who would otherwise have a very low risk of heart disease, cigarette smoking may cause as many as 75 per cent of the cases of heart disease. And, the longer a person smokes, the higher the risk of heart disease.
Obesity is a major risk factor for heart disease. How can we manage or treat child's obesity? After excluding any medical conditions that lead to obesity by a medical evaluation probably some points noted below may help the child to lose weight.
• Control portions (the amount of food they eat) and have them eat fewer calories.
• Do not use food as a reward for good behaviour or good grades.
• Limit their snacking and be aware of the snack foods they are eating.
• Know what your child eats at school.
• Eat meals as a family so it is easier to know what and how much your child is eating.
• Increase their physical activity and find fun exercise activities you can do as a family.
• Limit the amount of time your child spends watching TV and playing on the computer.
Physical inactivity is a major risk factor for heart disease. People who do not exercise have an increased risk of heart disease. Physical inactivity also increases the risk of developing other heart disease risk factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes.
Active children usually grow up to be active adults. Apart from preventing heart disease risk factors later in life, regular exercise will keep them healthy.
How do we know that a child is getting enough exercise?
The American Heart Association advises that all children five years and older get at least 30 minutes of exercise every day. This should include a mix of moderate- and high-intensity activities.