Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the United States and most industrialized countries. The chief risk factors are smoking, high blood pressure, diabetes, a high blood level of cholesterol, physical inactivity, and overweight. If members of your family have had heart disease at an early age, your child may be at risk for early-onset heart disease.
American children and adolescents, on average, eat more saturated fat and have higher blood cholesterol levels than young people their age in most other developed countries. The rate of heart disease tends to keep pace with cholesterol levels. One study found early signs of hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis) in 7% of children between ages 10 and 15 years, and the rate was twice as high between ages 15 and 20. According to the American Heart Association, a heart-healthy diet from an early age lowers cholesterol and if followed through adolescence and beyond, should reduce the risk of coronary artery disease in adulthood.
All children older than 2 years should follow a heart-healthy diet, including low-fat dairy products. For children between the ages of 12 months and 2 years with a family history of obesity, abnormal blood fats, or cardiovascular disease, reduced-fat milk should be considered.
Is There a Family History?
When you and your children first saw your pediatrician, you were probably asked if there was a history of heart or vascular disease in your family. If your children were young, their grandparents were probably relatively young as well and may not have had a heart attack or stroke (even though they may have been headed for one). If heart disease in the grandparents becomes apparent later on, be sure to bring it to your pediatrician’s attention at the next checkup.