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You may not think of heart disease as a health problem that affects kids, but prevention starts in childhood.
Plaques in the arteries that cause heart disease can start forming very early in life.
That’s why pediatricians check children for heart disease risk factors including obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and depression, said Dr. Uzoma Okorie, a Marshfield Clinic pediatric cardiologist.
Must-have health screenings
Childhood obesity, which affects about one in three American kids and teens, is the No. 1 heart disease risk factor in youths. Kids who are overweight or obese often have other risk factors, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol, Okorie said.
Pediatricians regularly test kids for these health problems. In 2015, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommended doctors also screen kids for depression as a heart disease risk factor.
Teens with major depression or bipolar disorder are at high risk of early heart disease and blood vessel disease. Depressed teens are more likely than other teens to have additional cardiovascular risk factors, according to the AHA.
Early intervention is important
Children with heart disease risk factors are unlikely to have a heart attack when they’re young, but chances increase as they get older.
Taking steps to manage heart disease risk during childhood will lower their chances of having a heart attack or stroke as an adult.
Lifestyle modifications, like getting more exercise and eating a balanced diet, often are the first steps. Your child’s doctor may prescribe medication if risk factors don’t improve with lifestyle changes. Seek ongoing mental health care for your child if he or she is diagnosed with depression.
“Be patient,” Okorie said. “There is no immediate fix. Lifestyle changes take time and even medicines don’t work rapidly. Keep following your child’s progress.”
As kids get older, remind them smoking and drinking alcohol in excess are especially dangerous for people with heart disease risk factors.
Talk to teens about heart disease, family history
Talk to your teens about their heart disease risk factors before they become responsible for their own medical care. It’s important they follow up with a doctor every year, Okorie said.
“We often lose young adults to follow up because they tend not to seek care if they feel okay,” he said. “That doesn’t mean they should ignore their risk factors. Annual visits will reveal problems that need to be tracked and treated.”
Even healthy teens should know their family history of heart disease.
“Being aware of the problem is the first step in solving it,” Okorie said. “If your family has a history of people younger than 50 having heart attacks, that’s an important marker. You can’t change your genes, but you can work with your doctor to modify your risk.”