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Fat 2 Fit: Focus on Children and Heart Disease

Childhood obesity can result in an increased risk for heart disease. Learn steps you can take to help the children in your life improve their health.

As you probably know, February is American Heart Month, a time to focus our awareness on keeping our hearts and bodies healthy.

Until the past decade or so, I had the mistaken notion that heart disease primarily affected men. That had been the case in my family. My father died of a heart attack, and my brother underwent quadruple-bypass surgery.

In contrast, my mother, four sisters, and I had seemingly escaped heart disease. That the women in our family would remain protected was a comforting, yet mistaken, idea. At the age of 38, my daughter, Jamie, required a valve transplant, and a few years later suffered cardiac arrest and nearly died. Today, thanks to educational efforts on many fronts, most of us are aware that heart disease is the number-one killer of women.

Yet even more education is needed about another segment of society increasingly affected by heart disease: children.

Today, growing numbers of children are at risk for developing heart disease because of the rising incidence of childhood obesity. The issue has become so urgent that blood pressure screening should start at age 3, according to a report in Pediatrics prepared by the National High Blood Pressure Education Program Working Group on High Blood Pressure in Children and Adolescents.

The authors write, “Primary hypertension is detectable in the young and occurs commonly. The long-term health risks for hypertensive children and adolescents can be substantial.” Moreover, the authors urge pediatricians to become familiar with the evaluation and treatment of hypertension in children.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute also urges pediatricians, pediatric nurses, school health personnel, and health-care providers for children and adolescents, to screen for heart disease by measuring blood pressure. Since children have lower readings than adults, the Institute developed a special hypertension-screening tool to measure blood pressure in pediatric and adolescent children ages 3 through 17.

What can concerned parents, grandparents, and family members do? In a New England Journal of Medicine editorial, David S. Ludwig, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and Director of Medicine at Children's Hospital in Boston, outlines three measures that concerned adults could support:

Regulation of junk-food advertising

Funding for healthy lunches and physical activities at school

Requiring that insurers cover programs to prevent and treat child obesity

Parents can also become familiar with the American Heart Association's overview of exercise and nutrition guidelines for children.

If enough of us get involved, we can make a difference in the lives of young ones around us, whether they are our students, neighbors, sons, daughters, or grandchildren. What can you do?