Most people think that only middle-aged or elderly adults can be affected by heart disease. Children are usually thought of as having healthy hearts. However, close to 1 percent of babies born in the U.S. are born with a congenital heart abnormality. It is estimated that one-third of these babies require intervention to prevent death in the first year of life. More than 1 million people living in the U.S. today were born with a congenital heart defect, and at least half of these individuals are under age 25.
Risk factors that contribute to cardiovascular diseases, such as smoking, obesity, lack of exercise, and high cholesterol levels often begin at an early age. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), most adult smokers started when they were in their teens or even earlier. The AHA also reports that evidence shows that smokers who started the habit before age 20 develop heart disease and high blood pressure earlier and in greater numbers than nonsmokers. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, studies have shown that children with elevated cholesterol levels tend to have elevated cholesterol into adulthood. According to the CDC, almost one-fifth of children ages 5 to 11 are obese. Furthermore, a study of obese 5- to 17-year-olds found that over two-thirds of the children had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Some heart problems experienced by children, such as most cases of congenital (present at birth) heart defects, can be treated medically or surgically, but cannot be prevented.
However, heart-healthy living habits started at an early age – sensible eating, keeping cholesterol levels low, getting regular exercise, refraining from smoking, and maintaining a healthy weight – greatly diminish the risks for other cardiovascular problems such as stroke, high blood pressure, and coronary artery disease developing in adulthood. Heart-healthy living is important for children born with heart defects to prevent complications from medical and surgical treatments that may be required throughout adolescence and adulthood.