Heart Disease in Children
Things like heart disease and high cholesterol are appearing in younger and younger people. These are no longer diseases of the elderly, or even of the middle-aged. They are becoming the diseases of our children. One friend of ours was diagnosed with unusually high cholesterol when she was only in her 20s. She changed her diet completely and her cholesterol levels dropped dramatically.
The sad thing is, diseases like atherosclerosis (build of up plaque in the arteries) don’t begin in adulthood when they are diagnosed. They take years to build up, which means that the food you feed your children today ultimately impact them many years down the line. Atherosclerosis ultimately leads to debilitating events like blood clots, heart attacks, and stroke. Our friend who was suffering in her 20s did not develop her condition overnight. It built up during her childhood and teenage years.
To make matters worse, more children than ever are suffering from conditions like obesity, diabetes, and hypertension. All of these factors place children at higher risk of developing heart disease at a young age. If your child is suffering from one of these risk factors, be sure to have their cholesterol and blood pressure screened.
As plaque builds up, your child’s likelihood of having a heart attack or stroke in adulthood increases. But his/her likelihood of having a tragic event even during childhood increases, too. Sudden cardiac death, myocardial infarction, stroke, and peripheral arterial disease are four things that could happen even in childhood if your child develops heart disease.*
Traditional teaching suggest that reducing or cutting fats and cholesterol out of one’s diet is sufficient to combat these impacts. But cutting out fatty foods and foods high in cholesterol is not enough. Sugar is also a cause for concern. Studies now show that the more added sugar consumed, the higher a person’s blood levels of unhealthy fats and the lower her blood levels of “good” cholesterol. It can also lead to higher levels of unhealthy cholesterol.**
Ultimately, any extremely high-energy calorie-dense food is suspect. Both fats and sugars are addictive, and both are common in calorie-dense foods. Some people claim that to combat obesity, we need to eat less. But in reality, we need to eat less of certain items. By all means, eat as much salad as you want! But eat less high-calorie salad dressing. Kids today are eating more snacks high in fats and sugars, like sweet muffins, white breads, and candy, as well as drinking a lot more high calorie beverages like sodas, energy drinks, and juices.
Parents can also counteract these behaviors by encouraging their children to get more exercise. When I was growing up, we spent all our playtime outside running around our neighborhood, riding bikes, swimming, and playing tennis. But too many kids today spend their days in school sitting at a desk, then come home to sit while doing homework or play video games. Even if you suspect your child will still be eating high energy foods out of the house, counteract the possible negative effects by getting your kids up and moving. Restrict how much TV they can watch or how much time can be spent playing games. Encourage them to join a sports team where they can play with other kids to make it more fun. Try to expose them to many different options so they can find something they actually like doing. Most public schools include a variety of after-school sports programs to choose from, so it doesn’t have to be expensive.
In summary, unfortunately, it is true that more and more children are developing heart disease. Tragic events like heart attack and stroke are uncommon in childhood but the arterial buildup that leads to them begins in childhood. Sadly, sudden cardiac death, myocardial infarction, stroke, and peripheral arterial disease can and do occur in childhood. Fortunately, this condition is reversible, especially in children. The solution is to feed your children less calorie-dense foods, which means reducing both sugars and fats in their diets. Try also to boost the amount of physical activity they get.
** Welsh JA, Sharma A, et al. Caloric Sweetener Consumption and Dyslipidemia Among US Adults. JAMA. 2010; 303:1490-7.