Heart-Healthy Habits for Families

In honor of American Heart Month, On The Pulse asked Dr. Jason Deen, a cardiologist at Seattle Children’s, to provide tips for families who want to make heart-healthy choices.

Deen works with families who have children who were born with heart problems, and also cares for families who have children who are obese, most of whom have high blood pressure and high cholesterol. He conducts research to learn about differences in the heart health of minority populations.

“While the rates of heart disease are leveling off for the population as a whole, certain ethnic and racial minorities are seeing continued increases in the rates of heart disease,” said Deen.

His various experiences have resulted in a special interest in preventing heart disease by encouraging patients and families to lead healthy lifestyles.

“The process of developing adult-onset heart disease begins early in life, before symptoms are present and before it can be diagnosed,” said Deen. “Consequently, educating parents and caregivers in helping children learn heart-healthy habits is key in prevention.”

Deen offers the following tips to help instill healthy family habits that will keep hearts pumping strong and blood vessels flexible and clear, in hopes of avoiding a future heart attack or stroke:

  • Shop the fresher outer aisles of the grocery store, avoiding the aisles with processed foods that pack in sodium, sugar and saturated and trans fats. Stock up on fruits and vegetables so each family member can eat at least five servings per day.
  • Read food labels and teach your child this skill as they get older. Pay attention to serving sizes as you compare the labels of similar foods. Avoid falling for claims of health on packaging made by marketers, and zero in on ingredients and nutritional values instead. Buy whole grains and lean proteins.
  • Eat smaller portions of a wide variety of foods. Try using smaller plates to keep from overloading. Serve food in the kitchen and leave the extra there, rather than on the dining table right in front of your family. Eat slowly and wait 20 minutes before deciding if you want more, paying attention to hunger and fullness.
  • Avoid sugar-sweetened drinks and drink water and skim milk instead (for kids over age 2). “We shouldn’t drink our calories,” said Deen.
  • Kids and teens need to get at least 60 minutes of exercise or active play every day. The activity can be broken up into 10 or 15-minute sessions, but make sure it’s aerobic activity. Deen calls this “panting activity,” meaning your child should be breathing harder than normal during their exercise.
  • Reduce entertainment screen time to an hour or less per day.
  • Take your child to their well-child checkups. It’s a time for checking their growth and catching it early when there’s cause for concern. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children have their blood pressure checked beginning at age 3 (sooner if other risk factors are present). They recommend that all kids be given a blood test to screen for high blood cholesterol and other blood fats between age 9 and 11 (younger if other risk factors are present).
  • Know your family’s heart health history and share this information with your teen as they begin taking responsibility for their own healthcare. This is especially important for families with a male member who has had heart disease at 55 or younger, or a female member who has had heart disease at 65 or younger.
  • Teach your child about the dangers of smoking. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cigarette smoking causes more than 480,000 deaths each year in the U.S. If you smoke, get help quitting.
  • According to the CDC, one in six U.S. children and teens are obese. If you are worried about your child’s weight, schedule an appointment with their doctor.

Overall, taking small steps for heart health can add up. In working together as a community to instill healthy habits in children that can last a lifetime, hopefully the day when one in four U.S. deaths a year are caused by heart disease can be history.