People often think of protecting their hearts when they’re older. But heart health begins in childhood. Some children have risk factors that make them more likely to develop heart disease at a younger age.

Kids and parents can address risk factors through lifestyle changes and medical care. A preventive cardiology program works with families to fight early heart disease.

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Heart Disease Risk Factors in Children

A young child or teenager may not think about their risk of having a stroke or heart attack in their 50s. But their actions now form the foundation for future heart health.

Without treatment, children at high risk of heart disease could have a heart attack or stroke at age 30 or 40.

Risk factors include a mix of genetic and lifestyle conditions. Common risk factors include:

  • Obesity or rapid weight gain.
  • High blood pressure.
  • High cholesterol.
  • Diabetes.
  • Chronic kidney disease.
  • Chronic inflammatory conditions.
  • Smoking or vaping.

Children treated for childhood cancer are at higher risk. So are those who have a family history of early heart disease. Some congenital heart defects also put a child at increased risk.

“We know that arteriosclerosis begins early in life and is accelerated by exposure to various factors,” said Brenda Mendizabal, MD, director of preventive cardiology at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Arteriosclerosis is a condition in which the artery walls thicken and get stiff. That makes it hard for blood to flow through the body. Pediatric preventive cardiology aims to counter this through lifestyle changes and medical treatment.

Preventive Cardiology for Premature Heart Disease

The American College of Cardiology recommends screening high-risk children between ages 2 and 9. High-risk children should get screened again between 11 and 17 years old.

Early intervention is key because artery damage is progressive. But any issues are most receptive to early stage treatment.

Children at high risk of early heart disease should get referred to a preventive cardiology program.

“Many traditional cardiovascular risk factors are modifiable and reversible,” Dr. Mendizabal said. “We can reverse arteriosclerosis already laid down. We can reverse left heart thickening associated with long-term high blood pressure. We can reverse artery stiffening.”

Specialists work with families to understand risk factors and set attainable goals. Treatment plans incorporate exercise, smoking cessation, nutrition, and chronic disease management.

Doctors aim to provide lifestyle changes first before suggesting medications. Yet, children with high blood pressure or high cholesterol may need medications.

“The UPMC Children’s Hospital pediatric preventive cardiology clinic believes in a family model of change,” Dr. Mendizabal said. “Parents, siblings, and grandparents can all do better when it comes to their diet and physical activity. I make specific, tailored suggestions and encourage families to set realistic goals.”

Obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes are risk factors that often carry over from childhood into adulthood. Diet and exercise are key to lowering these risks. A preventive cardiology program empowers parents and kids to make heart-healthy choices.

Helping kids set these habits early sets them up to prevent heart attack and stroke.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

American College of Cardiology, Preventive Cardiology – Children are Not Little Adults. Link

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, High Blood Pressure in Kids and Teens. Link

About Pediatrics

From nutrition to illnesses, from athletics to school, children will face many challenges growing up. Parents often will make important health care decisions for them. We hope to help guide both of you in that journey. UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is a national leader in pediatric care, ranking consistently on U.S. News & World Report’s Best Children’s Hospitals Honor Roll. We provide expert treatment for pediatric diseases, along well-child visits, urgent care, and more. With locations across Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia, you can find world-class care close to home. We also work closely with UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital, a national leader in care for newborns and their mothers. Our goal is to provide the best care for your children, from birth to adulthood and beyond. Visit our website to find a doctor near you.