By Dr. Gifford-Jones and Diana Gifford-Jones on December 15, 2023.
Heart disease is called the “silent killer.” Why? Because the first symptom can be a fatal attack. Most people lead their lives unaware of the ticking time bomb within, neglecting lifestyle changes that could radically reduce the risk. The fact is, preventing heart disease needs to be a lifelong practice, starting in childhood.
Pediatric cardiologists and researchers who focus on identifying and mitigating risk factors for cardiovascular disease in children and young adults are proving the case. Studies show that obese children have higher levels of insulin resistance and inflammation than their non-obese peers, both of which are known risk factors for heart disease. Obese children also have stiffer arteries, which can lead to high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems.
But heart health among children can begin even earlier in their lives, including before birth. Long before childhood obesity becomes a risk factor for heart disease, low birth weight, maternal smoking during pregnancy, and childhood exposure to environmental toxins are a concern.
In one study, children who were exposed to second-hand smoke had higher levels of atherosclerosis, or the buildup of plaque in the arteries associated with cardiovascular disease, than children who were not exposed.
The list of health problems caused by second-hand smoke is already a mile long. Adding increased risk of cardiovascular disease for children may not get the headlines this research finding deserves. But any adult neglecting to keep kids safe from smoke is guilty of the kind of child abuse that lasts a lifetime.
Cholesterol is another common consideration in cardiovascular disease. While cholesterol is often associated with older adults, it is also an important factor in the development of heart disease in children and young adults.
In another study, researchers found that children and young adults with elevated levels of LDL cholesterol, or “bad” cholesterol, were more likely to develop atherosclerosis and other cardiovascular problems. They also found that reducing LDL cholesterol levels through diet and medication can significantly reduce the risk of heart disease.
There are important implications of this research for the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease in children and young adults. By identifying and mitigating risk factors early in life, it may be possible to prevent the development of heart disease later on.
To combat childhood obesity, the recommendation is a multifaceted approach that includes healthy eating, regular exercise, avoiding exposure to environmental toxins such as second-hand smoke, and behavioural interventions, with an emphasis on starting early.
But there are a few fundamental problems. One, infants and young children have no capacity to lobby for their health. They are utterly dependent on their caregivers and the environment in which they live. Two, young people tend to feel immortal. They willfully indulge in high levels of risk. Three, by the time mid-life arrives, it’s often too late to erase the cumulative negative health impacts of poor lifestyle.
So for loving parents and grandparents everywhere: what might be the best birthday and holiday gifts for the youngsters in your family? Skip the sugary soft drinks, cakes and ice cream. Instead, make a photograph album of healthy, active centenarians and include the recipe for how to make it to 100+. There is an abundance of Gifford-Jones articles that could be included too – available at http://www.docgiff.com – arguably the best free advice of all!
But we shouldn’t be making light of the situation. Here in North America, and sadly around the world too, we are currently getting this one very wrong. Make no mistake about it, global childhood obesity rates are on the rise.