For A Strong Heart, Kids Need A Healthy Start

by Allison A. Appleton

As parents, we do all that we can to keep our children healthy and protect them from sickness. But did you know there are also steps we can take now that could help our children stay healthy later in life?

Children are typically born with many of the factors that contribute to good health, including a healthy heart. Our new research, published by the American Heart Association, found that parents can take steps now to help their children maintain good heart health as adults and protect against cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the United States.

We found that children who have the ability to stay focused, reason, think abstractly, comprehend ideas, and learn from experience have a much greater chance of enjoying a lifetime of good cardiovascular health. We also found this to be true for children who have a positive home environment, experiencing affection and acceptance from their parents. Children who scored highly across the board—a positive home environment, high ability to stay focus, and think abstractly—were four times more likely to have good heart health as adults.

Here are three things you can do to help your children maintain good heart health as adults:

  1. Practice positive parenting behaviors. Having a warm and empathetic parenting style can promote the development of healthy cognitive and attention capacities in children. It can also promote healthy lifestyle factors, such as a healthy diet, regular physical activity, and not smoking. So hug your kids, tell them you love them, be responsive to their emotions, support their explorations, and maintain a safe and stable home life.  
  2. Engage children in stimulating activities inside and outside of the home. Activities that involve problem-solving, dramatic play, puzzles, and reading can help increase a child’s ability to think abstractly and stay focused. What may seem like messy play time to us can actually provide important learning opportunities for our children. So let them spread that puzzle all over the floor and don’t rush to clean it up. Instead, help them put it together and ask questions along the way (e.g., where does this piece go?  Why won’t it fit in that space? What shape is this piece?).  
  3. Talk to your kids. Limiting television viewing and other screen time is important. Kids build skills and learn the most from interactions with caregivers. The back and forth nature of conversation is a fundamental building block of healthy child development. So when your child asks those seemingly endless sets of questions, take the time to engage in the conversation and respond to their questions and emotions. Not only are they learning about the world by getting the answers they seek, but they are also honing critical thinking skills and developing emotionally.     
This is part of a larger conversation going on in the medical and public health communities about how positive factors like a good home environment, life satisfaction, and optimism can help people live a longer, happier life. Thanks to funding by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, more and more research is showing that being healthy is more than just not being sick. These positive factors can also help protect your children from future disease.

It is one more reason to think twice before your letting your child turn on the TV. Taking that time to engage them in another activity might just help them build better health into adulthood.

Allison A. Appleton is a 
research associate at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College.