All parents want their children to be healthy and well, and to have long and successful lives. A healthy heart is vital for living life to the full, no matter the age. We often do not take stock of the fact that our children are vulnerable to heart disease too. In fact, the risk for heart disease can begin even before a child is born – during foetal development, and increases further during childhood with exposure to unhealthy diets, lack of exercise and smoking. Children can be affected by heart disease in various ways, so let’s take a look at some of the most common causes.
Congenital heart disease
Some children may suffer from a heart problem they are born with, which is known as congenital heart disease. This is where a child is born with a defect, or abnormality, of the heart or blood vessels near the heart. For most cases the cause of these abnormalities are not known, and so unfortunately cannot be prevented. The majority of children born today with congenital heart disease will survive and with proper treatment be able to lead a normal or near-normal life. Early detection, awareness and treatment are critical.
Rheumatic heart disease
Many of us aren’t aware of the link between a sore throat and heart disease, and yet rheumatic heart disease (RHD) is the leading cause of acquired heart disease in children and young adults in South Africa, with the poor being particularly vulnerable. RHD is a chronic heart condition caused by rheumatic fever, where damage to the heart valves occurs. RHD ultimately stems from an untreated streptococcal infection, commonly known as ‘strep throat’. If this infection goes untreated, rheumatic fever can occur between 2 and 4 weeks after a strep throat infection, where the child may have symptoms of tiredness, joint pain, fever and a rash, often visible on the chest.
With repeated attacks of untreated rheumatic fever, damage to the heart valves occurs and this is known as RHD. The ironic tragedy is that RHD is very easily preventable. A simple course of antibiotics can treat a strep throat infection, and regular antibiotic injections can prevent rheumatic fever from causing further damage to heart valves. But the sad situation is that in many children strep throat is not detected and they do not receive adequate treatment. It is important for parents and caregivers to be vigilant of a sore throat, and to take their child to a doctor or clinic immediately if they suspect their child has strep throat or rheumatic fever. The symptoms of strep throat parents should watch out for include a sore throat, pain when swallowing and swollen glands, but without other typical flu-like symptoms, such as a runny nose or cough.
Child malnutrition remains a problem in South Africa, which can affect the growth and development of the baby before birth, resulting in a child born with a low birth weight and poor growth in the early years of life, where a quarter of our children 1 – 3 years old do not reach their full potential height for their age. Poor growth is linked to an increased risk of obesity in adolescence and adulthood, and these children are at a greater risk for developing high blood pressure and insulin resistance at an early age, putting them at a greater risk for heart disease as adults.
While some of our children are affected by heart disease through factors that are out of their control, many more are adopting unhealthy habits that place them at risk at an earlier age for obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Our children are particularly vulnerable and are easily influenced by our unhealthy environment. The picture is concerning. More and more children and youth are taking up smoking, and many are exposed to harmful second-hand smoke. South African children are not moving enough, with a quarter watching more than three hours of TV a day. One in three adolescents eat fast food two to three times a week, and more than half of children don’t take a lunchbox to school, meaning that many are often eating unhealthy foods from the tuck shop or vendors, typically high in unhealthy fats, added sugar and salt. The result is shocking, with up to 23% of children in South Africa being overweight or obese. These children are likely to become obese adults, and are putting their hearts at risk from a younger age.
It’s important to be aware that heart disease can affect anyone, at any age. Adopting heart healthy behaviours early in life is the best preparation for preventing heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer later in life. It’s crucial for parents and caregivers to be positive role models which can set their children with healthy habits for life. A healthy lifestyle plays an important role in preventing heart disease and strokes, no matter your age.