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May 10, 2021

Managing kids' cholesterol and blood pressure protects future brain health, new research shows

Keeping children active is an important strategy to reduce cardiovascular risk factors, pediatricians say

Parenting Children's Health
Children Brain Health Hai Nguyen/Pixabay

Daily physical activity is just as important for children's blood pressure and cholesterol levels as it is for their weight. Children should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day.

Parents know it is important to instill healthy lifestyle habits in their children at an early age, but in a fast-paced society that offers the convenience of fast food and the lure of electronics, it isn't always easy to do. 

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused financial hardships and limited physical activity, has made it even harder. A Children's Hospital of Philadelphia study found that obesity rates among children in the Philadelphia region increased from 13.7% to 15.4% between January 2019 and December 2020.

Healthy living isn't only about weight management though. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7% of children ages 6 to 19 have high cholesterol, and 1 in 7 of them have high blood pressure.

Obesity, high cholesterol and hypertension in childhood are all known risk factors for future cardiovascular issues such as heart disease and stroke. New research also suggests that they are also risk factors for poor brain function by middle age.

The study, published in the journal Circulation, analyzed data from a longitudinal study on cardiovascular risk from childhood to adulthood. More than 2,000 boys and girls were included in the study which began in 1980 and ended in 2011.

At the end of the study, the participants underwent a computerized cognitive function test that measured four cognitive domains: episodic memory and associative learning, short-term working memory, reaction and movement time, and visual processing and sustained attention.

"We can use these results to turn the focus of brain health from old age and midlife to people in younger age groups," said the study's first author Juuso O. Hakala, of Findland's University of Turku.

"Our results show active monitoring and prevention of heart disease and stroke risk factors, beginning from early childhood, can also matter greatly when it comes to brain health. Children who have adverse cardiovascular risk factors might benefit from early intervention and lifestyle modifications."

The researchers found that consistently high systolic blood pressure or high blood total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol from childhood were linked to worse memory and learning by midlife. Obesity was associated with a lower visual information processing speed and difficulties maintaining attention.

Children with all three cardiovascular risk factors were found to more likely to have poorer memory and associative learning, worse visual processing, decreased attention span, and slower reaction and movement time by middle age.

The researchers said that more research is need to determine if there is a definite cause-and-effect relationship between cardiovascular risk factors and cognitive performance. Still, they said these are risk factors that should be carefully monitored even in childhood.

Here are some tips from pediatric experts, including the Mayo Clinic, Harvard Health and the CDC, on how to help manage children's cholesterol and blood pressure.

Cutting salt intake

Encourage children to eat a heart-healthy diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins, and to lose weight if they have a high body mass index.

When grocery shopping, choose foods lower in saturated fats like low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese, as well as fruits and vegetables. Try to avoid buying sweetened drinks.

A big part of managing blood pressure is cutting back on salt intake. The Mayo Clinic says children ages 4 to 8 shouldn't have more than 1,200 milligrams a day and older children shouldn't have more than 1,500 milligrams a day.

Pediatricians at Guadalupe Medical Center also recommend having children help with meal prep, which teaches them about healthy food choices.

Get moving

Daily physical activity is just as important for maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels as it is for weight. So make sure children are getting at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day. Put limits on screen time. Children age 2 and older shouldn't have more than two hours of screen time a day.

Get the kids outside to play as much as possible, even during the pandemic. Stuck inside on a rainy day? There are creative ways to stay active indoors, like playing a rousing game of hide-and-seek.

Make it a family affair

Pediatric experts and the CDC say that the best way to instill healthy lifestyle habits is for parents to adopt them too. When everyone in the family is making healthy choices, children are more likely to follow suit.

Regular checkups

Scheduling regular wellness visits for children. Screening tests can alert parents and the pediatrician to any potential issues.

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