8 Essentials for a Healthy Heart

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Take your family’s heart health into your own hands with Life’s Essential 8—a checklist of healthy habits and measures that affect heart, brain and overall well-being for anyone age 2 and older.

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The American Heart Association’s checklist—now expanded for younger ages since its release more than a decade ago—is centered around the body’s most important muscle: the heart.

Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 cause of death in the United States and globally. Studies throughout the past two decades indicate more than 80% of all cardiovascular events may be prevented by a healthy
lifestyle and management of risk factors.

“We felt it was the right time to conduct a comprehensive review of the latest research to refine the existing metrics and consider any new metrics that add value to assessing cardiovascular health for all people,” notes Donald M. Lloyd-Jones, M.D., Sc.M., EAHA, president of the American Heart Association and chair of the department of preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Start making positive changes to improve your heart and brain health with these eight essential steps:

Eat Better
A heart-healthy diet encompasses a high intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes; whole grains and fat-free and low-fat dairy; lean protein and low intake of sodium, red and processed meats and sweetened foods and drinks. Eat whole foods and rely on healthy non-tropical oils (like olive and canola) for cooking.

According to Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 60% of children do not eat enough fruit to meet daily requirements and 93% don’t get enough vegetables. When trying to increase your child’s fruit intake, be sure to choose fruits over fruit juice as fruit juice can be high in added sugars.

Get Active
For most adults, the target level of moderate physical activity (such as walking) is 150 minutes or more per week or 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity physical activity. Kids age 6 and older need 1 hour or more of play and structured activities per day.

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Quit Tobacco and Nicotine
Nicotine makes your heart rate and blood pressure skyrocket, while carbon monoxide and tobacco rob your heart, brain and arteries of oxygen. At least 250 chemical compounds in cigarettes are harmful to your health.

Reducing your health risk means eliminating exposure to any form of nicotine, including cigarettes, e-cigarettes and vaping devices, as well as limiting your exposure to secondhand smoke.

In Maryland, 27.4% of high schoolers report currently using a tobacco product, including e-cigarettes, according to the CDC. The National Cancer Institute reports that 90% of adult daily cigarette smokers first tried smoking before they were 18 years old. While no parent wants to assume their child will try smoking, having a conversation about the risks with your kids is important for every parent.

Get Adequate Sleep
Getting a good night’s sleep is vital to cardiovascular health. Measured by average hours of sleep per night, the optimal level is 7-9 hours daily for adults. Ideal daily sleep ranges for children are 10-16 hours per 24 hours for ages 5 and younger; 9-12 hours for ages 6-12; and 8-10 hours for ages 13-18.

Maintain a Healthy Body Weight
Although the measure of body mass index (BMI) is not a perfect metric, it is easily calculated and widely available; therefore, BMI remains a reasonable gauge to assess weight categories that may lead to health problems. A BMI of 18.5-24.9 is associated with the highest levels of cardiovascular health.

If you are concerned about your child’s weight, speak privately with your child’s pediatrician. Focus on health rather than a specific weight or number. Don’t make negative comments. As a parent, the best thing you can do to encourage your child to eat right is be a good example.

Manage Blood Glucose
When there is not enough insulin or the body does not use insulin efficiently, blood glucose levels accumulate in the bloodstream. Type 1 diabetes most commonly presents in children from 4-7 years old and from 10-14 years old. According to the Mayo Clinic, other potential risk factors for Type 1 diabetes include family history, genetics and geography.

Type 2 diabetes is more common in adults but can affect children, too. Risk factors for Type 2 include weight, inactivity, diet, family history, race or ethnicity, age and sex, maternal gestational diabetes and low birth weight or preterm birth.

The last two factors on Life’s Essential 8 that mitigate health risks are managing cholesterol and understanding blood pressure readings. Talk to your child’s pediatrician about optimal blood pressure readings and note that non-HDL (“bad”) cholesterol—rather than total cholesterol— is a reasonable predicator of cardiovascular risk.

For more cardiovascular health tips, or to assess your own risks, visit heart.org/lifes8.

Resources

Indoor play gyms for kids to stay active all year long in the Baltimore area: cbsnews.com/baltimore/news/best-indoor-play-gyms-baltimore

Baltimore resources to help children quit smoking: health.baltimorecity.gov/health-resources-topic/tobacco-smoking-cessation

Preventing type 2 diabetes in kids: cdc.gov/diabetes/prevent-type-2/type-2-kids.html

A guide to the symptoms of type 1 diabetes in children: mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/type-1-diabetes-in-children/symptoms-causes/syc-20355306

Tips for parents on healthy weight: cdc.gov/healthyweight/children/index.html

Heather M. Ross contributed to this story.

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