- A: Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the US for men and women in all population groups. For African Americans, heart disease is more likely to be severe and at an advanced stage when diagnosed.
There are a number of things that parents can do to reduce the chances that their child will have heart problems as an adult. Physical inactivity in children can lead to obesity, and obesity can increase the chances that you will develop hypertension, high cholesterol, and possibly diabetes. These are all major risk factors that can lead to heart disease as an adult. So my advice to parents is make sure your kids get plenty of exercise and eat healthy foods at both school and home. Parents should check to see whether there are vending machines at schools (or other places where their kids spend time) and what those machines are selling. If the machines sell only candy, chips, soda pop and other sugary drinks, ask the school to replace these items with fruit, vegetables, and other healthier alternatives. Even fruit juice can be high in sugar content and should be consumed in limited quantities. Give your kids healthy snacks that will see them through the day so they are less tempted to eat sugary or salty items.
In addition to diet and exercise, parents should encourage their kids not to smoke. The Surgeon General recently released a report warning about the increase in teen smoking and the immediate and long-term adverse health consequences. It should be required reading for every young person. The schools are trying to educate kids about the dangers of smoking. But parents need to re-enforce and support the school programs. Kids are still taking up this habit in junior and senior high school so the programs need to start early and continue.
Q: How much exercise should a child get each day? Is there a particular kind of exercise?
- A: For most children, an hour a day is a good rule of thumb. It doesn’t have to be a particular type of exercise, although it should include some running or jumping. After school sports programs are a good idea as kids get older. Parents should also be alert if schools try to reduce costs by eliminating things like recess and physical education classes.
Q: What are some of the early warning signs that your child may need to see a doctor?
- A: If the child is short of breath and has trouble keeping up physically with his or her peers, a parent should take the child to see the pediatrician. The pediatrician can then refer the child to a specialist if necessary.
This brings up another point that a child should see the pediatrician on a regular basis and not just when the child is having a health crisis. At least once per year, children should have an annual check-up. Children should also be examined before they participate in any organized sport such as football, basketball, tennis, soccer etc. This gives the pediatrician a chance to screen for any obvious problems and determine whether further testing is needed.
Q: How does a parent know whether their child has a weight problem?
- A: Ask the pediatrician who can calculate body surface area based on height and weight. There are also charts, which will show the normal ranges for particular ages. Even if a parent is not concerned about a child’s weight, it is a good idea to talk to the pediatrician generally about the child’s weight, diet and level of activity. Eating habits are formed when kids are young and if you get them to eat right at an early age, there is a much greater chance that they will not develop bad eating habits later on. For example, my own grandson never developed a taste for candy; he would much rather have fruit because that is the way he was fed from the beginning.
Q: Where can parents get more information about maintaining a heart-healthy lifestyle?
- A: I can’t emphasize enough that one of the main issues is diet. A diet high in fat, salt and sugar can lead to a narrowing of the arteries at any age and illnesses like kidney disease, heart disease, and diabetes. Some of the foods that African Americans have traditionally eaten might have been OK when we were doing hard physical labor, but they no longer fit today’s lifestyles and activity levels.
Here are a couple of suggestions where you can get additional information on diet. The American Heart Association has a website that contains lots of helpful information. Community health centers are another source of information as well as nutritionists and dieticians in the schools who might be willing to answer basic questions.
Note: Dr. Jesse E. McGee is a practicing cardiologist in Memphis, Tennessee and an Associate Professor of Medicine, Division of Cardiovascular Disease, University of Tennessee Health Science Center. Dr. McGee previously served as Chairman of the Board of the Association of Black Cardiologists. Dr. McGee attended University of Iowa Medical School.