February is heart month -- a great time to think about heart health. While we tend to think of heart disease as a problem of adults, it can start in childhood, and the health habits of childhood have everything to do with heart health in adulthood.
So as we finish up February, here are six things that parents can do to give their children the best chance of a healthy heart for life:
Keep your child at a healthy weight. Being overweight increases the risk of heart disease. We are seeing some of the early changes of heart disease in overweight children -- and being overweight as a child increases the likelihood of being overweight as an adult. So know your child's Body Mass Index, which is a calculation based on height and weight that we use to know whether your child is at a healthy weight. If it's greater than the 85th percentile for your child's age, talk to your doctor about what you should do.
Get -- and keep -- your child active. Physical activity is crucial not just for heart health, but for overall health, which is why it's recommended that children be active for at least an hour every day. Sports teams are a great way to do that -- but active play is great too. Work physical activity into your life: Stay at the playground for a while after school, walk places instead of driving, take the stairs and go for walks as a family. It will be good for everyone's health -- and set a good example for the kids.
Give your child a healthy diet. Make sure they eat fruits and vegetables (the recommendation is five servings a day), as well as whole grains, low-fat dairy, nuts and lean meats. For more information, recipes and ideas on how to eat healthy on a budget, visit the USDA's ChooseMyPlate website.
Get your child's cholesterol checked -- and yours too. The National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute (NHLBI) recommends that children should have their cholesterol checked between 9 and 11 years of age and again between 17 and 21, but if there's a family history of high cholesterol, they say it should be checked sooner. So get yours checked, and find out about the health of others in your family, especially if there is anybody who had a heart attack or stroke before age 55.
Know your child's blood pressure. High blood pressure puts stress on blood vessels, and this can lead to heart disease. Starting at age 3, your child should have her blood pressure measured at every checkup. Normal values vary depending on a child's age, gender and height percentile; the NHLBI has tables to help figure out when it's too high. If it is, talk to your doctor about what you should do.
Don't smoke or let your child be around other people who smoke. Not only does tobacco smoke increase the risk of asthma and cancer, it increases the risk of heart disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has some great information and resources about quitting. Talk to your doctor for resources in your area.
Small changes can make a big difference; get started today.
Follow Claire McCarthy, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@drClaire