Television, video games and junk food are often blamed for the 300,000 Irish children who are overweight or obese - ‘chubby’ if you want to be cute about it. Obesity in children is more than just a social stigma issue; recently it was highlighted as the biggest health problem facing Irish children today. Overweight children are likely to stay this way and continue to struggle with their weight into adulthood. This puts them at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD) at a younger age. A new generation are growing up with established heart risks and it's time to get real - look at the facts and find solutions.
Cardiovascular disease – a deadly killer
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) CVD is an umbrella term that covers disorders of the heart and blood vessels. These disorders include, but aren’t limited to, high cholesterol, coronary artery disease and high blood pressure. Unsurprisingly carrying excess weight, especially around the belly is a risk factor. Others include smoking, diet, genetics and inactivity. CVD kills more people than all cancers combined, accounting for about 1 in 3 deaths in Ireland.
Overweight children - the scary facts
The percentage of obese or overweight children in Ireland has spiralled over the past few decades. In 1990, 13% of children aged between 8-12 were overweight or obese compared to 22% of 5–12 year olds today. Keep going like this and the figure will be closer to 50% by 2050. Unfortunately, rising obesity equals more health problems. In the UK, NHS admission figures show a four-fold rise over a decade in youngsters needing medical attention because of their weight.
CVD linked to obesity in children
Worryingly, 13% of premature deaths (under age 65) are from CVD. Although CVD normally affects older adults, the foundations of heart health are laid down in early childhood. Children are rarely diagnosed with cardiovascular disease because vessel narrowing, (atherosclerosis) caused by a plaque build-up, takes years to develop. However, in overweight, inactive children the risk of heart disease and stroke is much higher in early adult life.
According to researchers in Oxford University, obese children may already have a 30-40% greater risk of either suffering a stroke or developing heart disease when they are adults.
CVD linked to inactivity in children
As well as encouraging healthy weight maintenance, it’s important to encourage your child to be active. Only 3 in 10 children achieve the recommended 1 hour of physical activity per day in Ireland.
Researchers from Trinity College Dublin found risk factors for heart disease in inactive children as young as ten.
This study measured the physical activity levels and incidence of CVD risk factors in 102 schoolchildren. Six had elevated cholesterol levels, while five had high blood pressure. Sixteen showed “clustering” of CVD risk factors. All of these risks were higher in inactive children.
Give your child's heart a chance
The road to future heart health starts in early childhood. Take steps now to help your child keep their heart healthy long into old age.
- Check their weight
- BMI is a good indicator of whether your child has weight to lose. Your GP can also advise on the ideal weight range.
- Measure belly fat
- According to a study published in the International Journal of Obesity, if a child carries a lot of weight around their belly they are 5-6 times more likely to develop cardio-metabolic problems in early adulthood (26-36 years) compared to children with a smaller waist measurement.
- Instil good habits
- Prepare healthy family meals, add fruit, vegetables and wholegrain crackers to their lunchbox, restrict take-aways and ready meals, involve them in cooking their own healthy recipes.
- Cut back on fat, salt and sugar
- Junk food, processed food and fizzy drinks not only lead to weight gain, but they clog up their arteries too.
- Encourage exercise
- All children need at least 60 minutes of exercise per day. Encourage them to try lots of different sports. Eventually they will find a sport they love.
- Set a good example by looking after your own heart health
- Children whose parents had a heart attack or stroke at an early age are twice as likely to develop cardiovascular disease.
- Less stress
- Everyone, young and old should try to laugh a little more. A hearty belly laugh is as good for your health as a jog around the park and has been linked to a drop in stress hormones, blood pressure and cholesterol.