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Heart Disease in Children…Yes, it happens! And Parents Need to Know About It

By Carissa M. Baker-Smith, MD, MS, MPH, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Maryland School of Medicine; and Pediatric Cardiologist at the University of Maryland Children’s Hospital | 5/26/2017, 6 a.m.
As a pediatric cardiologist, I diagnose and treat children with heart conditions. I also assist families and children with implementing ...
Parents should know that even if their child’s heart developed normally, decisions that they make in terms of what and how much they feed their children can also have an impact on their child's heart health. ClipArt.com

— As a pediatric cardiologist, I diagnose and treat children with heart conditions. I also assist families and children with implementing strategies to help prevent the onset of heart-related disease.

Dr. Carissa M. Baker-Smith, , MD, MS, MPH
Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Maryland School of Medicine
Pediatric Cardiologist, University of Maryland Children’s Hospital

Courtesy Photo/UMMS

Dr. Carissa M. Baker-Smith, , MD, MS, MPH Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Maryland School of Medicine Pediatric Cardiologist, University of Maryland Children’s Hospital

Parents, family members and children are counseled regarding the child’s specific heart findings and when necessary, management and treatment strategies are put into action.

News that Jimmy Kimmel’s son was born with a heart defect was on the front page of the news several weeks ago. Knowledge that his newborn son would need to undergo heart surgery at such a young age gripped the family and those hearing this story.

It is important to note that while not all children with defects of the heart will require heart surgery, many will require lifelong follow-up with a cardiologist. Some may require procedures of the heart such as cardiac catheterization or heart surgery.

In the field of pediatric cardiology, we often talk about two types of heart disease: congenital and acquired.

Congenital heart disease (CHD) refers to defects of the heart that occurred when the heart was forming (first three to eight weeks of pregnancy). CHD can present early or later in a child’s life, depending on the severity of the disease. CHD is actually the most common birth defect in the United States, occurring in 40,000 of the four million live births a year, or nearly one percent of U.S. births.

The other type of heart disease that will impact an even larger number of children and adults is acquired heart disease. Approximately 92.1 million people have at least one type of cardiovascular disease.

Known risk factors for cardiovascular disease include:

•Elevated blood pressure and hypertension

•Lack of physical activity

•High cholesterol

•Unhealthy diet

•Unhealthy weight/obesity/morbid obesity

•Smoking/tobacco Use

•Elevated blood glucose/Diabetes

•Poor sleep and obstructive sleep apnea

It is not uncommon for parents, teachers and other providers to assume that a child is “fine.” Many of the conditions that put children at risk for long-term heart-related problems don’t cause symptoms.

For instance, most children with elevated blood pressure or high cholesterol are unaware that they have either of these conditions.

Parents should know that even if your child’s heart developed normally, decisions that we make in terms of what and how much we feed our children can also have an impact on their heart health.

Children who are of an unhealthy weight or who are obese (weight for height greater than the 95th percentile) are at a much higher risk for diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, obstructive sleep apnea, and early heart disease as adults.

We as parents must encourage good nutrition and avoid giving our children excessive calories (children are not little adults). Children need far fewer calories in order to grow normally. Avoiding sugar-sweetened beverages is important and avoiding or limiting high fat foods is crucial to maintaining a healthy weight.

Simple ways to keep our children healthy, include:

•Try to exercise every day

•Eat the green stuff: spinach, broccoli, green beans

•Avoid sugar-sweetened beverages

•Get a good night’s rest