For your health: take care of children’s hearts

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from dr Tami Hendriksz, Special for the Daily Republic

The heart is the most important muscle in the body and it is important that we keep it as healthy as possible. It helps bring blood, oxygen, and nutrients to all of our cells.

Heart problems can occur in people of any age. Some children are born with heart problems (heart defects), while other children may develop heart problems as they grow. February is National Heart Month and a great time to learn how to take care of the hearts of all children.

Heart defects occur in about 1 in 100 live births, making them the most common type of birth defect. Heart defects can range from holes in the heart to abnormal connections within the heart to narrowed arteries that remove blood from the heart. Some of these defects are life-threatening and require emergency surgery in the neonatal period, while others are minor and cause no symptoms at all.

Congenital heart defects often do not cause symptoms until they are severe. Symptoms of a heart defect can include:

• A heart murmur (an extra ‘hissing’ sound that occurs during the heartbeat).
• Difficulty breathing or rapid breathing.
• Chest pain or fainting during exercise.
• Rapid heartbeat or heartbeat.
• Increasing difficulty in exercising (tires more quickly than usual).
• Poor food intake (the child gets tired or sweats when eating).
• Blue discoloration of the skin and body (cyanosis).
• Abnormal blood pressure.

If a child develops these symptoms, they should be evaluated by their pediatrician as soon as possible.

There are other heart problems that children can develop or acquire as they grow. These include problems such as atherosclerosis, a narrowing or blockage of the small blood vessels that carry blood around the body. Atherosclerosis begins to develop in early childhood and is the leading cause of heart attack, stroke and death in adults. Risk factors for atherosclerosis include genetic components (family members with the disease), being overweight or obese, elevated blood pressure, high cholesterol, little to no physical activity, and exposure to smoking (either smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke).

Fortunately, keeping your heart as healthy as possible at any age can help reduce these risks.

A heart-healthy lifestyle for children includes:

• Get at least nine hours of sleep at night.
• Eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Encourage children to eat fruits or vegetables with every meal and grab fruits and vegetables as easy snacks.
• Limit screen time to two hours per day. This includes the time spent on tablets, computers, mobile phones, television and video games. If cutting down to two hours is too difficult, it’s healthier to just cut down altogether.
• Participate in at least one hour of physical activity per day. This can be done in a variety of ways including walking, running, hiking, biking, dancing, jumping rope, playing soccer or other sports, playing tag, doing exercises or dance workouts from YouTube, etc. The exercise doesn’t have to be done all at once: 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there – as long as it makes an hour a day.
• Avoid sugary drinks. Beverages with added sugars include soda, juice, sweet tea, sports drinks, and certain drink mixes. Drinking lots of sugary beverages has been linked to obesity and can also contribute to irritation, ulcers, and abdominal pain. Water is the healthiest drink a child can drink.

dr Tami Hendriksz is a mother, pediatrician, and Dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine at Touro University California, a partner of Solano Public Health.

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