Most kids have a big heart (emotionally speaking). But what can you do as a parent to keep their young hearts physically healthy? We asked Audrey C. Marshall, MD, the new chief of pediatric cardiology at Floating Hospital for Children, some common questions about what makes our ticker, tick.
Question: Heart disease runs in my family. What are the chances my son will eventually develop it?
Both pediatric and adult types of heart disease can run in some families. The typical adult onset heart disease has some modifiable risk factors that most of us are familiar with, such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Most pediatric heart diseases, resulting from congenital heart defects, occur sporadically, that is, they aren’t inherited in any obvious way, and there aren’t any clear ways to avoid their occurrence. Overall, congenital heart defects occur in about 1 in every 1,000 babies who are born. In some families who have had heart defects in their family, the chances of having a similar defect occur in a child can be several times higher than that, but overall it’s still quite low. Testing for congenital heart defects can be done before birth, using ultrasound.
Question: I have a child who has been anxious her entire life. How much affect does stress have on the heart?
It is difficult for a parent to see a young one in a state of anxiety, whether it is for a fleeting moment or it is more chronic. In older children, stress can cause heart-related symptoms, such as palpitations or chest pain, and can also affect the circulation by increasing heart rate or raising blood pressure. Fortunately, these effects usually come and go with periods of stress, and so there is no known lasting effect on the heart for most children.
Question: I have two children – 8 and 12 – and they LOVE ice cream. I make sure they have healthy meals, but as long as my kids aren’t overweight, is a bowl of ice cream each night okay?
Ice cream is a great treat for kids, especially in summertime, but sweet treats shouldn’t be built in to a child’s daily routine. Weight control is important for lifelong heart health, as are good nutritional habits. Ice cream and other desserts, on occasion, are a great way to follow a healthy meal!
Question: My son has had a heart murmur most of his life. Now he’s 16 and plays sports (football, lacrosse). I worry that maybe all that exercise is unsafe.
Most likely, your son’s heart murmur is what we call a “benign murmur”, meaning that it’s not a sign of any disease or risk for exercise. Benign murmurs are usually easy to identify with just a simple physical examination and an electrocardiogram by someone trained in heart exams. If these are reassuring and there isn’t another particular reason to be concerned with your son’s participation in sports, then you probably don’t have to worry, and you can encourage him to continue to participate.
Question: What is the single most important thing I can do for my child’s heart health?
The biggest risks to most children’s lifetime heart health are posed by obesity, poor nutritional choices, and a sedentary lifestyle. Though it’s not a “single thing”, supporting your child in doing simple things like active play, regular physical activity, and thinking about what, when, and how much he/she eats is probably the best we can do to keep our children’s hearts healthy.
This post is also available in: Chinese