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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

Preventing Heart Disease: What Parents Need to Know

April 03, 2014

By Claire McCarthy M.D.

Boston Children's Hospital

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. It's what many doctors — internal medicine specialists, cardiologists and family practice doctors — deal with day in and day out. But it's not something that pediatricians need to think about, right?


The risk factors for heart disease can and often do begin in childhood. Pediatricians not only try to keep their patients healthy during childhood, but also do everything they can to ensure lifelong health and well-being.

That's why the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a special report for pediatricians on how they can help their patients grow up to have healthy hearts.

The 48-page report has some important take-aways for parents, as well.

  • Family history matters. High blood pressure, high cholesterol and other heart-disease risk factors can run in families. Talk to your family members about their health, and get checked out yourself. If there are any changes in your family's health, let your child's pediatrician know.
  • Smoking is really bad. It's not just bad for the smoker, but bad for anyone who is exposed to the cigarette smoke. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about smoking cessation programs. Keep your children away from cigarette smoke — and do everything you can to stop them from smoking themselves.
  • Weight matters. Baby fat turns into kid fat that can often turn into adult fat. Being overweight is a huge risk factor for heart disease. At every doctor's visit, find out whether your child's weight is healthy. Know your child's BMI (Body Mass Index). If it's over the 85th percentile for age, take action. Don't ignore it. Talk to your doctor about the best ways to get your child to a healthier weight.
  • A healthy diet is crucial. Here are some highlights of the dietary recommendations:
    • If possible, babies should be breastfed for at least the first six months of life.
    • Limit your children's total calories to what they need to fuel their growth and activities. Watch portion sizes and snacks. Your doctor can help you figure out the right daily calorie intake for your child.
    • Serve lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains daily.
    • Get rid of the sugar-sweetened beverages. Even juice isn't necessary. Water and unsweetened low-fat milk are all your kids should be drinking.
  • Know your child's blood pressure. Make sure that it's measured at every checkup from age 3 on — and make sure that it’s healthy for your child's age.
  • Get your child's cholesterol checked. All children should be screened for high cholesterol at least once between the ages of 9 and 11, and again between ages at 17 and 21. Some children may need earlier or more frequent screening depending on family history and their other risk factors.
  • Exercise! Shut off the screens and get your child (and everyone) moving for an hour every day. It's good for all of you.

By working with your doctor to follow these recommendations, you will give your child his or her best chance at a long heart-healthy life. That's the best gift you could give them, better than any toy or gadget or video game. It's the best way to show you love them.

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Claire McCarthy, M.D., a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications, is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She is an attending physician and Medical Communications Editor at Children's Hospital Boston.

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