A study shows that children who develop bad health habits at a young age may suffer from poor cardiovascular health later in life.

Heart disease is most often thought to strike older adults.

But a new study has found that by age 11 children in the United States have developed some bad habits that can affect their heart health as they age.  

Researchers at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine conducted the study, published by the American Heart Association. They analyzed data from nearly 9,000 children ages 2 to 11 from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States — about 610,000 people die of heart disease in the country every year. That’s about one in every four deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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This study concludes that good cardiovascular health should begin in childhood. Researchers said that setting a good foundation for heart health during the early years of life is paramount.

“We know that maintaining ideal cardiovascular health into middle age is rare, but it is surprising to see how much of the intrinsic [heart] health that we are born with can begin to disappear even by early childhood,” said senior study author Dr. Donald M. Lloyd-Jones, a professor and chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern.

Researchers estimated levels of ideal, intermediate, and poor cardiovascular health using four metrics: body mass index (BMI), a measure of weight vs. height; diet; total cholesterol; and blood pressure.

Overall, 30 percent of the children surveyed were overweight or obese. None of the children had ideal scores on all four metrics of heart health.

The main culprit in poor heart health appears to be diet. Less than 1 percent of children in the survey had an ideal healthy diet score.

A healthy diet includes low levels of sugar-sweetened beverages and salt and high levels of whole grains, fish, fruits, and vegetables.

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The study found that less than 10 percent of children ate the recommended amounts of fruits and veggies, while 90 percent ate more salt than the American Heart Association recommends.

Most children aren’t affected in the short term by too much sodium. But continued high-levels of sodium are likely what lead to high blood pressure later in life.

“It seems to me that the takeaway for parents, physicians, teachers, and for our society as a whole is that we must make every effort to preserve cardiovascular health by establishing healthy habits in our kids right from the start,” Lloyd-Jones said. “This includes providing access and encouraging eating a healthy diet high in fruits and vegetables, with lean proteins and limited processed foods and starches. It also means making sure children establish a pattern of physical activity.”

The children’s blood pressure scores were better; 88 to 93 percent had ideal blood pressure scores. About 40 percent of the children had intermediate or poor cholesterol levels.

BMI scores varied with age. About 77 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 5 had ideal BMI scores, while just 67 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 11 did.

When it comes to maintaining a healthy weight, diet and exercise are key.

“Together, these two areas of behavior can mean that children avoid unhealthy weight gain and the attendant changes in blood pressure, blood lipids, and blood sugar that follow,” Lloyd-Jones said.

Bottom line: If you develop bad health habits as a child, you’re likely to end up with heart problems later in life.

“The better we can equip our children to make healthy choices, the more cardiovascular health will be preserved into adulthood. And those who preserve their heart health into middle age live much longer and are much healthier while they live,” said Lloyd-Jones.

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