Most US Kids Score Low for Heart Health—Here's What Parents Should Know

A new assessment tool from the American Heart Association shows most U.S. children have low heart health scores. Here’s what to know and how to help your child.

Partial view of kid holding a red paper heart
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The majority of people in the U.S. ages two to 19 years old have poor heart health scores, according to a new assessment tool created by the American Heart Association.

"Life's Essential 8" assesses heart health using eight factors: sleep duration, diet, physical activity, nicotine, blood lipids, blood sugar, and body mass index (BMI).

It's important to note that Body Mass Index (BMI) is a dated, biased measure that doesn't account for several factors, such as body composition, ethnic descent, race, gender, and age. Despite being a flawed measure, BMI is widely used today in the medical community because it is an inexpensive and quick method for analyzing potential health status and outcomes.

Researchers then compared that data against benchmarks from a nationwide health and nutrition survey of more than 13,500 adults and nearly 9,900 kids for the years 2013-18.

Fewer than 30% of people ages two to 19 received high scores for heart health using these criteria. Perhaps even more troubling, the scores continued to decline when broken into age groups. Though 56% of children ages two to five had high scores, only one-third of children six to 11 years old did. And just 14% of the participants in the 12 to 19-year-old age group had high heart health scores.

Senior author Dr. Amanda Marma Perak, a cardiologist at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, said in a news release that children scored lowest in "diet," which is similar to what researchers have noted in adults.

Having good cardiovascular health (CVH) from an early age is important, doctors say.

"Children with high CVH have lower burdens of subclinical cardiovascular disease in mid-life. And for children who manage to maintain high CVH into late adolescence or young adulthood, their risk for premature clinical cardiovascular disease events over the next 30 years is extremely low," Dr. Perak said.

Dr. Perak also called for policy-level changes to support better diets, including subsidies to help fund fruit and vegetable production, nixing the availability of sugary beverages in schools, and making healthier foods.

This news may sound scary to parents. The good news is that small lifestyle changes can make a big difference.

"Individuals and families who improve their eating patterns can markedly improve their total cardiovascular health, even independent of weight change," Dr. Perak said.

Discussing body health with your child can feel like a slippery slope. On the one hand, you don't want to do anything to trigger body image issues that can contribute to an eating disorder. On the other, you love your child and want them to be healthy.

There are ways to make nutritious eating and exercise fun, though. Here's some expert-backed advice:

  • Make it enjoyable. Kids are more likely to stick with a physical activity they like (adults are, too). Whether it's soccer or hikes, support and encourage your child's preferred way to move.
  • Don't emphasize weight. Though weight affects heart health, focusing too heavily on it can trigger disordered eating.
  • Consider it a team effort. Stay active with your children by turning movement into a part of your family's regular routine. Experts say children who are a part of families who move together continue these habits as they grow up.
  • Serve up body-positive food discussions. Instead of labeling food as "healthy" and "unhealthy," try "always," "sometimes," and "rarely." Fruits, veggies, and protein would be part of the "always" category, while sweets fall under the "rarely" umbrella, and takeout could be classified as "sometimes." Teach your children what foods do for their body, such as "oranges help you stay well" and "sweet potatoes give you the energy to play."

The key is to avoid shaming and instead empower your kids to make choices that will help them stay healthy and happy throughout their lives.

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