Is Your Child at Risk of Heart Disease?

02/13/2014 02:48 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2014

By Heather M. Graham for

Heart disease is the number one killer of both men and women in the U.S. While it's older adults who generally get it, the risk factors for deadly cardiovascular diseases such as coronary heart disease and stroke begin in childhood.

If those factors -- including weight, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes -- aren't addressed while kids are young, their chances of dying from heart disease as adults are doubled, according to pediatric cardiologist Joseph Mahgerefteh, M.D., of The Children's Hospital at Montefiore.

For American Heart Month, let's explore ways to protect our children.

How Heart Disease Begins

The plaque build-up that narrows the arteries -- called atherosclerosis -- actually starts in childhood and progresses through the teens and twenties, according to pediatric cardiologist Joseph Mahgerefteh, M.D., of The Children's Hospital at Montefiore.

Plaque is created from fat, cholesterol and other matter in the blood. It thickens artery walls, causing coronary heart disease, which can lead to heart attack or stroke later in life. And that process, says Dr. Mahgerefteh, can start as early as age two!

Weight Is the Biggest Factor

"Over 55 years of follow-up studies have shown that overweight adolescents have twice the risk of dying from coronary artery disease," says Dr. Mahgerefteh. "This was even independent of their adulthood weight."

With a growing number of overweight or obese kids, we can expect many more adults with heart disease in the near future. Overweight kids are also at an increased risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes -- all contributing factors to heart disease. If your child is overweight, talk with your pediatrician for her recommendations.

How Your Child's Pediatrician Can Help

Regular screening is the first step. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute issued guidelines endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics that recommend kids between 9 and 11 years of age have their cholesterol tested at least once (and then again at 17). Both organizations recommend blood pressure testing start at age three.

Your child's pediatrician may also test his blood sugar as well as cholesterol and blood pressure so these can be monitored and treated if necessary. Says Dr. Mahgerefteh, "Risk-factor control at any age will postpone the development of the earliest stages of [heart disease] and its progression, and will reduce or delay the occurrence of coronary artery disease."

Tips to Keep Your Kid's Heart Healthy

• Introduce a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat or fat-free milk products and beverages low in sugar
• Kids ages 6-17 should get at least one hour of physical activity every day
• Limit leisure screen time to less than 2 hours per day and encourage them to be less sedentary

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Heather M. Graham is a writer and editor specializing in healthy living. She lives in New York City.