29 Jun 2022
Habits Children & Adolescents Can Cultivate to Live Longer
Estimated read time: 4 minutes
When we think about a legacy parents might leave their children, the first thing that comes to mind is a good education, a home, and good values. But healthy habits are another great inheritance. New research reveals that some diseases affecting young adults, such as heart problems, start developing in childhood and adolescence — and parents and caretakers are key to prevention.
Science is proving what common sense tells us: Forming good habits early in life greatly impacts our future health.
The most recent study on the topic was conducted by a group of international researchers in the United States, Australia, and Finland. It analyzed medical information from around 40,000 individuals collected since they were children, from the 1970s through the 1990s.
The goal of the study was to piece together a chronological panorama of certain factors related to heart health, including:
- Body mass index, which is calculated by dividing weight by height squared and determines whether an individual is obese or overweight
- Systolic blood pressure, which is the higher number in a blood pressure reading and measures the pressure of the heart on the arteries when pumping
- Total cholesterol, which tells us how much of this fatty substance is in the blood
- Triglyceride levels, another fatty substance found in the blood
Scientists also collected information regarding whether the participants used tobacco, one of the most significant risk factors for heart health and a habit that became popular in the decades when participants were still minors.
Then, between 2015 and 2019, researchers carried out follow-up studies on participants who were on average 46 years old. The results were concerning: 800 had already experienced heart issues, such as strokes or heart attacks, 300 of which had been fatal.
Participants with higher BMIs, systolic blood pressure readings, cholesterol, and triglycerides or who were smokers in their youth had triple the risk of having heart problems than those with lower levels or those who were nonsmokers.
According to this investigation, financed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), although tobacco use was the main risk factor, with the majority of ill adults using or having used tobacco, additional factors also impacted their health later in life. For example, individuals who were obese or already had high or borderline high cholesterol, blood pressure, or triglycerides had double the risk of having heart problems.
What can parents do?
Habits developed in childhood are strongly influenced by parents and caretakers. For example, parents who see extra pounds as a sign that their child is “a healthy eater” may be overlooking symptoms of obesity that could affect them later in life.
Authors of the international study emphasize that parents need to be watchful of these signs and take action to improve children’s habits, efforts science now confirms are a long-term investment in their child’s health as an adult.
Parents should schedule at least one annual doctor’s visit with a pediatrician, or more frequently if they have health issues. We might not pay much attention to children’s blood test results, but they are important. Parents should be familiar with the following numbers:
- Body mass index. This information can help parents or caretakers discuss a special diet or exercise routine with their child’s pediatrician.
- Blood pressure. Parents should not only know the number, but also learn whether their child’s blood pressure is at a healthy range. In the United States and most countries, children’s blood pressure is measured starting at three years of age.
Parents have a right to access this data about their children, whether it on paper or through medical providers’ websites. It is important to highlight this because during a visit to the pediatrician, assistants or nurses typically share a child’s height and weight with parents, but not other vital signs.
- Cholesterol and triglycerides. Data on cholesterol and triglycerides is collected through blood tests. Current guidelines recommend that all children have their cholesterol tested between the ages of seven and nine, and again between 17 and 21 years of age.
Children with additional risk factors, such as diabetes, obesity, or a family history of high cholesterol, should be tested between two and eight years of age, and again between 12 and 16 years of age.
Parents should also prioritize a healthy diet and exercise in their child’s daily life and make a point of discussing smoking with them from a young age, even before they enter adolescence or puberty. This includes not only conventional tobacco but also e-cigarettes or vaping, which are harmful and whose marketing specifically targets children.
Of course, the challenge and costs of eating a healthy diet and maintaining an exercise plan aren’t always within everyone’s reach. Still, parents and caretakers can cultivate small positive habits that can start to make a difference, such as eating more vegetables, drinking water, and limiting added sugars (especially in drinks), processed foods, and bad fats.
The same applies to exercise: Kids should exercise for one hour a day. This doesn’t need to be done as part of a team sport or at a gym. Simply engaging in active play, going for a walk, doing exercise videos, or just dancing in the living room is enough.
The legacy of good health habits not only guarantees a better quality of life for your child, but will also help them avoid costly healthcare in adulthood due to medical issues that could have been prevented by taking action decades earlier.
Remember, always consult with your physician or health care professional to determine the best options for your body and health and to answer any questions you may have regarding any medical matter.