Childhood Obesity: A Matter of Life and Death

More education is needed for an invisible segment of our nation increasingly affected by heart disease. I say invisible because when we think about heart disease, how many of us think of children?
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First Lady Michelle Obama has announced her intent to make children's health a national priority. She, like many health experts, is alarmed that obesity in children has tripled in the last 30 years and that one-third of today's children are overweight. Left unchecked, childhood obesity can lead to premature deaths. Obese children are two times more likely to die at a younger age than children with normal weight, and their risk of dying before the age of 55 is double that of their leaner peers.

Parents and grandparents share an important task: to build strong and healthy hearts in children. And February is American Heart Month, a month during which we become more aware of the need to care for our bodies in healthful ways so our hearts will last a lifetime.


Until the past decade or so, I had the mistaken notion that heart disease affected primarily men. That idea was blasted out of my reality when my 38-year-old daughter, Jamie, required a heart valve transplant and, a few years later, suffered cardiac arrest and nearly died. Today, thanks to educational efforts on many fronts, most of us are aware that heart disease is the number one killer of women.

Photo courtesy of Peter W.

Yet more education is needed for an invisible segment of our nation increasingly affected by heart disease. I say invisible because when we think about heart disease, how many of us think of children?

Sadly, increasing numbers of children are at risk for developing heart disease because of the rising incidence of childhood obesity. The issue has become so urgent that blood pressure screening should start by age 3, according to a report in Pediatrics magazine prepared by the National High Blood Pressure Education Program Working Group on High Blood Pressure in Children and Adolescents.

The authors affirm that "primary hypertension is detectable in the young and occurs commonly. The long-term health risks for hypertensive children and adolescents can be substantial." Moreover, they urge pediatricians to become more familiar with the evaluation and treatment of hypertension in children and to address issues involving medication, along with lifestyle changes such as weight reduction and physical activity.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute is also urging pediatricians, pediatric nurses, school health personnel and health care providers for children and adolescents to screen for heart disease by measuring blood pressure. Since children have lower readings than adults, the institute developed a special hypertension screening tool to measure blood pressure in children ages 3 through 17 and issued it in a special bulletin on January 24, 2008.

These efforts are reinforced by research indicating the link between heart disease and increasing obesity in children. One study included in the New England Journal of Medicine was reported in the Washington Post. It confirms that children who are overweight have a higher risk of developing heart disease as adults and that indications start showing up as early as age 25. Moreover, the risk continues to increase over time.

What can concerned parents, grandparents and other family members do? Here are three recommendations by David S. Ludwig, MD, PhD, a Harvard researcher:

1. Don't serve junk food, and encourage legislators to regulate junk-food advertising targeted at children.

2. Join community groups and lobby for healthy lunches and physical activities at school.

3. Write letters in support of requiring insurers to cover programs to prevent and treat child obesity.

For more of Dr. Ludwig's recommendations, go here.

Parents and grandparents can also support the American Heart Association's initiative, the Fitness Integrated with Teaching Kids Act. This federal legislation encourages schools to work toward the national goal of 150 minutes of physical exercise per week for elementary school students and 225 minutes per week for students in middle and high schools.

To help families, the American Heart Association provides an overview of exercise and nutrition guidelines for children on its Web site. For kid-friendly meals, go here. For exercise ideas for the whole family, go here. Familiarize yourself with this information and share it with your family. And don't forget to be a role model. Others are watching what you do.

If enough of us get involved, we can make a difference in the lives of the young ones around us, whether they are our students, neighbors, sons, daughters or grandchildren. What can you do?

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