Bad Habits Now Put Adolescents at Risk for Heart Disease Later

[Note: The following post was originally published by Aetna Intelihealth on April 3, 2013.]

More than 8 out of 10 U.S. teenagers have unhealthy diets, a new survey has found. About 3 out of 10 boys and more than 5 out of 10 girls don’t get enough exercise, the survey found. Nearly one-third have abnormal cholesterol levels. And similar numbers are overweight or obese. Researchers said these results show that many of today’s teens may be at risk of early heart disease. The nationwide study included 4,600 teenagers. The American Heart Association says that 7 factors lead to optimum heart health. They are a healthy diet, healthy weight, regular exercise, not smoking and having ideal levels of cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar. Only half of the teens surveyed met 5 or more of these 7 criteria. The journal Circulation published the study. HealthDay News wrote about it April 1.

What Is the Doctor’s Reaction?

Good habits begin early. And bad habits that begin in childhood can turn into real problems when kids become adults. This is especially true for heart disease. Being exposed to risk factors for heart disease at an early age can increase the chance of developing heart disease later in life.

We are seeing more and more children and young adults who do not have good health habits. This can lead to obesity, diabetes and eventually heart disease and death. So how are today’s teenagers doing when it comes to heart health?

First, how do we define good heart health? The American Heart Association defines it based on seven good health behaviors and health factors. These include:

  • Not smoking
  • A healthy body mass index (BMI)
  • A healthy diet (plenty of fruits and vegetables, fish and whole grains, but limited salt and sugar-sweetened drinks)
  • Regular physical activity
  • Normal blood pressure
  • Normal blood sugar levels
  • Normal blood cholesterol levels

Researchers looked at information from a nationwide study called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Study (NHANES). This is a national research study that aims to look at the overall health and well-being of children and adults in the United States. Here were some of the worrisome findings about teenagers:

  • More than 8 out of 10 had a poor diet. Fewer than 1 out of 100 teenagers achieved an ideal diet.
  • More than 5 out of 10 girls and 3 out of 10 boys did not get enough physical activity.
  • Nearly 3 out of 10 had abnormal total cholesterol levels.
  • About 3 out of 10 did not have an ideal body mass index, a measure of obesity.

But there was some encouraging news as well. More than half of teenagers had never tried a cigarette.

What Changes Can I Make Now?

Heart health at a younger age is a major predictor of heart health later in life. So it’s never too early to start forming good habits. Most heart disease is preventable and caused by factors we can change, such as poor eating, physical inactivity and smoking. The new study shows that U.S. teen health is not ideal and may well lead to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

What can we do now to prevent this?

  1. Get started on healthy eating habits early in life. Kids are born with ideal heart health. Help them avoid forming bad habits. Make sure that kids eat lots of fruits and vegetables, fish and whole grains. And put tight limits on sugar-sweetened drinks.
  2. Get moving. Physical activity is critical and has a strong effect on preventing heart disease. It also helps to prevent obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure, which increase heart-disease risk. Turn off the TVs, hand-held devices and computers and get outside. It’s good for you and good for your kids.
  3. Be a good role model. Don’t smoke, get active and eat well.
  4. Push for better diets and more physical activity at school. Tight budgets have led many schools to limit recess time, physical activities and sports programs. Healthier meals at school may cost more money as well. We need to convince public officials that healthy meals and exercise in schools are worthwhile investments.

What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?

The American Heart Association has set a goal of improving U.S. heart and blood vessel health 20% by 2020. In order to stand a chance of reaching that goal, we need to focus our efforts to help improve heart health in teenagers. Improving heart health in our younger population will make a huge difference in preventing heart disease in adults.

The rates of obesity and diabetes in children have already risen. If we don’t change the trends now, we will see tremendous increases in heart disease in 10, 20 and 30 years. Now is the time to change and get our kids healthy.



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