Families, Communities Unite To Promote Healthy Hearts

Armen Hareyan's picture

With 155 million obese and overweight children throughout the world, studies show that parents play a crucial role in helping control their children's weight and teaching them other healthy habits to reduce the principal risk factors leading to heart disease and stroke in adulthood. Recognizing the influence of parents not only in the home but in the community, the theme of this year's World Heart Day, celebrated in September 30, 2007, is "United for a healthy heart."

Heart disease and stroke are the number-one cause of premature death in the Americas, accounting for 31 percent of all deaths. If current trends continue, an estimated 20.7 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean will die from these diseases over the next 10 years. Worldwide, 17.5 million people die from these diseases each year�80 percent in low- and middle-income countries. Reducing key risk factors�including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and blood sugar, smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke, low consumption of fruits and vegetables, overweight and obesity, and physical inactivity�could help prevent many of these deaths.

"Studies show that, throughout the lives of their children, parents play a crucial role in the development of habits to maintain cardiac health, including diet, physical activity and tobacco consumption," said Dr. Rafael Shuchleib, President of the InterAmerican Heart Foundation. "Children pick up the habits of those around them. At 10 years of age, children reflect the habits of their family, friends and social circles, and studies indicate that habits regarding eating and physical activity are formed at this age and stay with a person throughout their life. As a result, primary prevention of cardiovascular diseases should begin early with parents and community groups recognizing the important role that they play."

"With help from parents, schools and the community, children need a balanced diet including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, fish, legumes as well as products low in fat," said Dr. James Hospedales, Chief of the Chronic Diseases Unit of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). "Parents have a wonderful opportunity to set an example, not only for their own heart health but for that of their children. Children can also participate by bringing information home from school that can influence the behavior of other members of the family."

The chances that an adolescent will follow a low-fat diet is twice as high if both parents also follow the same diet, according to a study in Norway. Another study showed that involvement by the parents considerably improved the diet and physical activity of children 8 to 11 years old. Other studies show that obese youths have more than an 80 percent chance of being overweight as adults and therefore are at greater risk for heart disease and stroke. Overweight children are three to five times more likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke before age 65 than children of normal weight, while facing an immediate risk of atherosclerosis and a greater probability of developing diabetes.

Physical activity is vital for good cardiac health, and lack of physical activity can lead to obesity, diabetes and hypertension. In the last 10 years, the number of overweight children has increased two to five times in developed countries and almost four times in developing countries. One study found that children who watch television more than two hours per day have a 5 percent chance of being overweight. Regular physical activity helps to reduce the stretching of the arteries that lead to the heart and brain, helps the body manage the excess of accumulated fat, and can help reduce high blood pressure, improve levels of "good" cholesterol (HDL cholesterol) and maintain normal glucose levels. At least 60 percent of the world's population does not achieve the recommended minimum 30 minutes (60 minutes in children) of moderate physical activity per day. However, levels of physical activity in children can improve significantly with the participation of parents.


Tobacco consumption is also an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Quitting smoking reduces the level of blood coagulants and diminishes the probability that they will produce a blockage in the blood vessels. Studies show that children are less likely to smoke if their parents don't smoke and if they spend more time together as a family.

One study showed that youth who spend little time with their family are almost four times as likely to smoke as those who spend more time with their families. Joining a smoking cessation support group doubles the chances of success compared to those who try to quit smoking on their own. Over and over again we see that children receive a positive impact due to the healthy habits of their parents.

In the Americas, important actions to reduce risk factors include the "Trans Fat Free Americas" initiative involving private industry, the mass-media campaign "Eat healthy, live well, and get moving, America," and movements such as "Active Cities" and "Cycling: roads united in the Americas." In mid-September, the prime ministers of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) met and agreed on a common strategy to reduce chronic diseases.

Another example of regional action is the implementation of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which requires signatory countries to promote smoke-free environments. One country in the region, Uruguay, has legislation in place creating smoke-free environments throughout the country. Strategies to improve diet and promote physical activity are also being implemented. In spite of these advances, however, trends show that heart disease and stroke risk factors remain the principal epidemic in the PAHO region.


Following the recommendations below, you and your family can significantly reduce the chances of heart disease and stroke: