If kids don’t usually come up during discussions on cardiovascular disease, that’s because hypertension, stroke, high cholesterol, and heart attack due to the buildup of plaque in the arteries are thought to be old people’s illnesses, ailments that shouldn’t concern the young until they become adults themselves.
But in a country where cardiovascular diseases account for a third of the deaths of its population (or 72% of the deaths in the country in 2021, according to the Philippine Statistics Office), efforts to keep our heart healthy should start years before we become adults—they should begin as early as childhood.
“Though heart disease is hereditary (meaning you are more likely to have it if your close blood relatives do), it can also develop as a consequence of one’s environment,” says Ceres Paulino Canto, MD from the Cardiology department of the top hospital in the Philippines, Makati Medical Center (MakatiMed). “Kids who are exposed to family members who smoke and drink, eat mostly processed food, and have sedentary lifestyles are likely to follow in their footsteps. So, while cardiovascular diseases like heart attack and stroke are associated with the older generation, their causes can be traced to childhood.”
Dr. Canto shares three lifestyle habits to keep your little ones’ hearts healthy:
Eat nutritious food. Introduce quality nutrition the minute your kids are born. Start with breastmilk, which is rich in protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. When they’re ready for solids, make them get used to and appreciate fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy products. “And because you’re no spoilsport, treat them to fast-food fare and sugary drinks occasionally but do practice portion control. Don’t offer too much that they overeat or waste food, or too little that they end up craving for more,” Dr. Canto suggests.
Get active. In this age of the internet, kids typically spend their days seated and staring at a computer screen, tablet, or phone. “Physical activity doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated,” Dr. Canto points out. “Letting loose at the playground, dancing, or engaging in sports for 30 minutes to an hour a day deliver oxygen and nutrients that allow the cardiovascular system to work more efficiently.Make them develop a lifelong love of physical fitness and activity today.”
Kick bad habits. Do you smoke or drink? Stay up late? Consider junk food a food group? There’s a strong possibility your kids will too. Kids love mirroring what their parents do, so it’s best to lead a healthy lifestyle yourself. “If you’re going to be a role model for your children, inspire them by espousing healthy habits like quitting smoking and minding your sleep hygiene,” Dr. Canto reminds.
While all these recommendations apply to any age, your children will certainly reap their full benefits the longest, provided you start early. “Kids are more likely to stick to a heart-healthy lifestyle if they grow up exposed to it, especially during their most formative years. Once these good-for-the-heart habits are instilled in them, they would be harder to break, even when they reach adulthood,” Dr. Canto underlines.