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Published on November 03, 2015

Never too young for a heart healthy lifestyleNever too young for a heart healthy lifestyle

It’s time to talk to 4-year-olds about their hearts.

A new report published by the American College of Cardiology finds that pre-school children can learn healthy lifestyle behaviors that will benefit them later in life.

Previous research has shown that unhealthy diets at a young age can lead to cardiovascular disease later, and that some heart disease conditions begin as young as 3 years old.

Researchers in Spain monitored 2,000 children between the ages of 3 and 5, at 24 Madrid schools. The three-year study used the SI! Program for Cardiovascular Health Promotion.

Pediatric psychologists assessed the students at the beginning of the program and again every year for three years. The children in the intervention group scored 5.5 percent better in their knowledge, attitudes and health habits the first year, 7.7 percent higher the second year and 4.3 percent higher the third year.

Early intervention is the key to preventing heart disease, says cardiologist Claude-Laurent Sader, MD, of the Heart and Vascular Institute of Cape Cod Healthcare.

While adapting a healthier lifestyle is encouraged at any age, Dr. Sader says the challenge to his field in the next 15 to 20 years will be to adopt a very aggressive form of early intervention that avoids many of the lifestyle risks associated with cardiovascular disease.

“We’ve gotten extremely powerful and resourceful at treating heart disease after the first event occurs, but we’ve been extremely weak in trying to prevent the first event from happening,” he says.

As part of the study, the children were taught about healthy lifestyles in the classroom and at their school’s annual health fair. They were also given materials and activities to take home and share with their families.

Involving the families had the bonus result that parents began healthier lifestyle habits as well, says Sharon Daley, MD, of Seaside Pediatrics in West Yarmouth.

“Pediatricians are all about prevention, so we talk about getting good nutrition and regular exercise from a very early age,” she says. “One of the things we recommend is to not have your children spending much time on electronic devices and in front of TV’s. It interferes with the time that they should be outdoors playing.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under the age of 2 and a maximum of two hours a day for older children. Dr. Daley thinks two hours is too long, especially given the fact that so many children are overweight these days.

But the truth is that many children far exceed even two hours a day of TV. Busy parents often use television as a virtual babysitter. Unfortunately these children are not only getting regular exercise, but they often eat while they watch TV, adding unhealthy extra calories.

“Healthy eating and exercise really go hand in hand,” Dr. Daley says.

Dr. Sader says the interval of a three-year study was important because you have to be very consistent with children. He especially liked that the reinforcement existed both in the classroom and at home.

“We have to lead by example, so they were not only helping the children but also helping the adults become better role models,” he says. “Children learn from what we do every day both physical- and activity-wise, and what we put on our table or what we eat when we are hungry.”

Dr. Sader says the results of the study make sense because education programs about drugs, alcohol and sex are currently successful in American schools. He’s also heartened that many schools have replaced sugary drinks for water in their vending machines.

“If we can change kids’ behavior and give them information about health and give them help to support the change, it would be easier for them to do,” he says.

“Kids today are very sharp and smart and they do pay attention to what they learn in school. They just need to be pointed in the right direction.”