Heart Disease Begins in Childhood?
If you read my columns, you’re probably aware that cardiovascular disease—meaning atherosclerosis, heart attack, and stroke—is the number one killer in the developed world. While this is unwelcome news, it’s due, in part, to the fact that we’re living long enough to develop these diseases. Throughout most of history life expectancies were relatively low, due to the toll exacted by infectious diseases. We’ve made great strides at eliminating these threats. We’ve also eliminated many devastating illnesses that resulted from starvation and chronic nutritional deficiencies.
If you were under the impression that cancer is the biggest health threat faced by most Americans, you’re probably not alone. Cancer gets considerably more attention and probably causes more fear and anxiety than heart disease. But when it comes to cause of death, cancer is a distant second behind heart disease, for both men and women.
Many people are under the impression that cardiovascular disease is more or less inevitable. If you’re lucky and live long enough, the cardiovascular system simply wears out. Right? Wrong. Most cardiovascular disease is a result of long-term, ongoing disease processes that begin early in life. Blood vessel walls become stiff and inflexible. Eventually lesions form on the inner linings of the vessels. If one of these lesions forms a clot, which breaks free, the clot can travel to the heart or brain and cause a heart attack, or stroke.
Research strongly suggests this scenario is almost entirely avoidable. The key is lifestyle. Your body needs exercise to thrive, and the blood vessels are no different. They respond well to exercise and activity; it helps keep blood flowing smoothly. Diet is also crucial. Diets featuring plenty of natural antioxidants from plant foods are invariably linked to better health outcomes and longer life. On the other hand, being obese, having poor blood sugar control (also linked to diet and exercise), and having high blood pressure are all risk factors for heart disease.
Now, new research shows that the disease processes underlying cardiovascular disease may begin shockingly early in life. Investigators have shown that arterial wall stiffness and reduced arterial dilation are both evident in children as young as 6 to 8 years, when those children are overweight and sedentary. To think that children so young can manifest signs of cardiovascular disease, formerly seen in much older adults, is another indictment of modern lifestyles that fail to emphasize the importance of activity and good nutrition from an early age. I don’t want to step on any toes here, but it bears pointing out: Letting your child become a chubby, inactive kid may be a prescription for a short life plagued by poor health.
Veijalainen, T. Tompuri, E. A. Haapala, A. Viitasalo, N. Lintu, J. Väistö, T. Laitinen, V. Lindi, T. A. Lakka. Associations of cardiorespiratory fitness, physical activity, and adiposity with arterial stiffness in children. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 2015; DOI: 10.1111/sms.12523