When you think of heart disease, you seldom think of children, but congenital heart defects are the number one cause of birth defects in children in the world. Almost 1 in 100 babies is born with a heart defect, and it is the number one cause of infant mortality in America. There are different kinds of congenital heart defects that result in everything from sometimes minor abnormalities like an atrial septal defect, to more serious conditions like those that fall under the single ventricle defects category.
Sometimes children acquire heart disease after birth. Two common types are Kawasaki and rheumatic heart disease. In Kawasaki disease, the hands, feet and lymph nodes swell and there is usually fever and rash present. Often there is a rash that looks like a strawberry on the tongue. Their eyes may also be bloodshot. For some unknown reason, this disease is most prevalent in Japan and more common in boys. In children in developed countries, its at the top of the list of causes of pediatric acquired heart disease.
Rheumatic heart disease is a complication of rheumatic fever brought on by the streptococcal bacteria that can arise from an untreated case of strep throat. Children and even adults who have had one bout with rheumatic fever are at risk for contracting it again and must take a long-running course of antibiotics to prevent recurrence. Surgery may be required to repair damaged heart valves.
Doctors are now treating an influx of cases of heart disease in children due to obesity, a condition that was very rare only a generation ago. One out of every 10 children of grade school age in the world is estimated to be over their target weight. Statistics from 2010 indicate that over 42 million kids under the age of five are overweight, and a good number of them will grow up to be overweight adults as well. Since 1980, the number of children who are overweight in the USA has doubled. For adolescents, triple the number.
Clearly we are in the midst of a global epidemic of childhood obesity which is a huge contributing factor to acquired pediatric heart disease. Kids in developed nations often have unfettered access to foods high in calories yet lacking in nutrition. Super-sized portions and sugary drinks pack the pounds on youngsters who no longer spend hours a day outdoors running and playing and instead hole up behind computer screens or playing handheld video games.
The sedentary lifestyle many children espouse may well be killing them. If we want to protect our children’s hearts, we need to get them up off the couch and out of the refrigerator. Skip the drive-thru and introduce healthy eating patterns and wholesome nutritious foods. Keep kids active through participation in team sports or other physical activities to start them on the path to a lifetime of healthy living.