You may notice a lot of red being sported in your coffee line on February 6th. No, it is not a Christmas flashback; it is National Wear Red Day to raise awareness for cardiovascular disease in women.
Despite robust efforts by the American Heart Association and a dedicated awareness day to women’s heart health, there remain a lot of myths, questions, and lack of awareness about heart disease in women. Contrary to what many think, heart disease and stroke remain the number one killer of women!
Heart disease claims the lives of 1 in 3 women, and more women die of heart disease than men. Approximately 80% of cardiovascular disease is preventable; that means we have a lot of work to do!
Not only is it critical that we educate women about their risks of cardiovascular disease and how to modify them as well as to recognize symptoms of cardiovascular disease, it is imperative that we prepare today’s generation of moms to change the cardiovascular risks of their children.
Despite increasing numbers of women in the work force and the emergence of more stay-at-home dads, the blessing and burden of most child care still remains in the hands of women. This poises women to define the future health of their children in many ways.
More and more we are learning that the risks for cardiovascular disease are not only genetic but embedded in early lifestyle behaviors. Obesity, poor dietary habits, and a sedentary lifestyle are all risk factors for cardiovascular disease; these trends and habits start at a young age.
Choose heart-healthy foods for your little ones.
As moms we are often the ones making food choices for our children and setting their schedules and activities. It starts at birth with the decision to breastfeed versus formula feed your baby, followed by what foods and snacks are first introduced around 6 months of age. Just as it is undeniably a challenge to balance motherhood and work, it undeniably easier to grab fast food, a frozen pizza or chicken nuggets for the kids’ dinner than it is to deliver a home-cooked meal with healthy choices. However, the burden of maximizing our children’s life-long cardiovascular health is one of the many not-easy things about having children.
I encourage my moms to start off with the best food possible for their babies by breastfeeding. The long-term health benefits of breastfeeding for both mom and baby are vast; and incompletely understood and appreciated. I remind moms that a child’s taste, or palate, is very trainable. In some cultures they eat fermented beans and rice for breakfast and that is what they like because that is what their taste buds have been trained to like. You may not want to train your kid to eat fermented beans at 7AM, but you certainly can train them to eat a scrambled egg and whole grain toast for breakfast instead of Fruity Pebbles or other highly sweetened cereals or breakfast hot pocket items. You can certainly train them to like water or milk instead of artificially flavored fruit punch or soda; or an apple instead of a packet of donuts. Carrots and hummus or apple slices and peanut butter instead of a bag of chips or Lunchable for an after school snack are examples of simple cost-effective choices that can lead to years of healthier dietary choices in your kids. We may not realize it, but these little choices we make every day as moms are at the heart of our kid’s future health.
Get your kids moving.
Of course it is not just about diet. Getting kids to move is key! Avoiding a sedentary lifestyle is one key to reducing heart disease. Physical activity habits start at a young age just as do food choice habits. Kids watch what parents do; if parents are sedentary kids are also likely to be sedentary. The American Heart Association and other professional organizations offer recommended daily amounts of exercise, but in general, 30 minutes of moderate activity such as briskly walking 5 days a week is a good lifestyle choice. Going for family walks is a great way to combine exercise with conversation with our kids in an era where increasing amounts of time are spent in front of electronic screens and engaging in social media forums devoid of one-on-one human interaction. I recommend walking home from school with kids if possible, neighborhood walks in your community, weekend hikes in the local parks and sending kids outside to play instead of watching TV or a computer game after school for all my families. Limiting screen time to the American Association of Pediatrics’ age-specific recommendations helps kids engage in a more active lifestyle and healthier sleep habits as well.
Almost all Americans need to move more and eat healthier; so grab the kids and go for a walk in Forest Park or in your neighborhood park! Cook a homemade meal rich in whole grains, vegetables and lean meat or fish and have a picnic on the porch! Kids love picnics. Spring is just around the corner and beckons hours outdoors in the sunshine for you and your family. A good walk can make your heart happy and healthy all at once. So much of what we do every day as moms is truly at the heart of our family’s well-being; even the little choices can offer the promise of a healthier heart to you and your little ones decades down the road.
Rosanna Gray-Swain, MD, is an advocate for women's health and board-certified physician at West End Ob/Gyn.