February is Heart Month, a great time to shine light on the importance of healthy hearts in children and teens. A recent study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that one in four young adults is living with prediabetes, and that can have serious health consequences, like cardiovascular disease. That study coupled with another recently conducted by Raquel Hernandez, M.D., M.P.H., medical director of the Healthy Weight Initiative at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, discovered many children who are currently at a healthy weight might actually be at risk for obesity. She shares simple ways to keep your family healthy.
Be an Advocate for Your Family’s Health
- Cholesterol Screening for Children is Important
Heart disease and stroke are rare in children, but the process begins at a young age and progresses throughout life. It’s important to identify who is at risk early so lifestyle changes like healthy diet and exercise can start immediately. For children who have a family history of high cholesterol, cholesterol screenings should be done before the age of four, with other children receiving a universal screening by ages 9-11.
- Monitoring Blood Pressure is Important
Most children have hypertension secondary to obesity. It is important for pediatricians to check blood pressure and diagnose hypertension. Children should have yearly blood pressure screenings done starting at age 3. The blood pressure is then compared to tables for age, gender and height. If the child’s blood pressure is greater than the 90th percentile, the child should be treated for hypertension.
- Get 9 hours of sleep: Too many children are sleep deprived due to increasingly busy schedules, the use of devices at bedtime and our 24-hour culture. Set a household bedtime and turn off electronic devices.
- Eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables: Fruits and vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals, as well as fiber to keep kids regular and promote feeling full during meals. Keep fruits and vegetables in obvious places in the home for a quick grab.
- Allow only 2 hours or less of screen time: Inactivity is a main risk factor for obesity, diabetes and hypertension. One of the biggest contributors to an inactive lifestyle includes extended screen time. Clock time by using timers and use screen time as a reward.
- 1 hour or more of physical activity: Being physically active not only promotes heart health and healthy weight, it also increases lean muscle mass, helps improve mood and promotes self-confidence. Keeping kids active can be a challenge, but 60 minutes of activity per day is important and achievable if you get creative.
- 0 or almost no sugar sweetened beverages: Too often, the excess calories our children consume include those from sodas, sports drinks and other sweetened beverages.
Just like in adults, good cardiovascular health in children is dependent upon annual well checks, healthy diet and plenty of exercise. If these habits are established at a young age, it is easier to create lifelong habits.
About the Author: Dr. Hernandez is assistant professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and medical director of the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Healthy Weight Initiative. She completed her medical school, residency and fellowship training at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She additionally completed a Master in Public Health with an emphasis on nutrition at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health during her fellowship in general academic pediatrics.