Most Kids Score Low on Heart Health

Most Kids Score Low on Heart Health
Children exercise, contributing to their hour of physical activity a day they need for their heart health. Photo courtesy Humphreys.

Heart disease is often viewed as a middle-age problem, but heart problems can begin at a much younger age. A group of experts are now warning that most kids in the United States do not have good heart health, setting them up for big problems later in life.

The statement comes from Julia Steinberger, M.D., M.S., Professor of Pediatrics and Director of Pediatric Cardiology at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, and other experts who published their opinion in the American Heart Association journal Circulation. The authors compared data from the 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to the American Heart Association’s idea of ideal cardiovascular health for children.

The American Heart Association considers seven factors for determining if a child’s cardiovascular health is ideal: they perform at least an hour a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity; they maintain a healthy body weight, less than the 85th percentile of BMI; they have a healthy diet for four out of five components; they avoid tobacco products, not even trying a cigarette once; and they have healthy glucose (less than 100 mg/dL fasting), cholesterol (less than 170 mg/dL), and blood pressure (less than 90th percentile). If children keep to these healthy habits throughout their life, they can better maintain good heart health as they age.

When the authors looked at data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, it was not encouraging. They found that most children involved in the study, at 91 percent, had a poor diet. In fact, most of their calories seem to come from sugary snacks and drinks, not the best diet for a healthy heart.

Not only were most of the children eating poorly, they were also not exercising enough. In the age range six to eleven, more than two thirds of the girls and about half the boys did not get their 60 minutes of activity a day. It only got worse with age, as only five percent of the girls and and ten percent of the boys between sixteen and nineteen were getting enough exercise.

The combination of poor diet and lack of exercise took its toll on the kids’ body weight, indicated by body-mass index (BMI), which is a comparison of body weight to height. The data showed that about ten percent of pre-schoolers were classed as obese, and by the time kids reached the twelve to nineteen-year-old age range, about 19 to 27 percent were obese. Although most kids seemed to have an acceptable body weight, the percentage who were overweight seemed much too high for a preventable health risk. Not only that, if more continue to put on weight into adulthood, it could mean health problems down the road.

Smoking is one preventable heart health risk factor, but it seems plenty of teens are still lighting up. About a third of the twelve to nineteen-year-olds admitted to trying a cigarette at least once. Since so many people find it hard to quit smoking, this could be setting these teens up for a lifetime of unhealthy habits.

Luckily, all these bad habits are not yet affecting blood pressure, blood sugar, and total blood cholesterol, with most of the kids at ideal levels. However, this does not mean that the study participants will keep these health metrics at good levels for their entire lives.

As unsettling as it may be to see that most kids in the United States are not getting enough exercise and not eating right to maintain a healthy weight, their biggest challenges may be later in life. The habits people develop when they are young tend to follow them through life, and damage they do to their bodies now might be setting them up for health problems in the future. The article authors see their analysis as an opportunity to identify cardiovascular risk factors in kids. If the pediatricians can encourage their young patients to eat better and get more exercise now, they may have better heart health later in life. Schools and public policy can also help shape healthier habits, the study authors say.

Along with poor diet, obesity, high blood pressure and cholesterol, smoking, and physical inactivity, other risk factors for heart disease include stress, diabetes, age, poor hygiene, and a family history of heart disease. Heart disease can lead to potentially-deadly complications like a heart attack or stroke.

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