Heart defects are the most common type of birth defect, occurring in about one in 100 live births. As we celebrate this heart-themed month, and patients like Henry, we also celebrate the important milestones in pediatric heart care that make life-changing stories possible – including the Children’s Hospital Foundation Heart Center which was established just over one a year ago. The Children’s Hospital Foundation Heart Center advances pediatric heart surgery in Central Virginia and brings a new level of pediatric heart care close to home for the many children in our region in need of care.
“As we celebrate the Children’s Hospital Foundation Heart Center’s inaugural year and watch children thrive after life-changing surgery, I am humbled. I get to work at the center of a committed team who surround a child with all their expertise and pull hard on the same rope. Nothing beats what we witness when a family embraces their child for the first time after surgery. Their fear melting into joy. To have seen it so many times makes me a lucky man.” – Dr. Tom Yeh, Director, Children’s Hospital Foundation Heart Center
Read on for tips from Children’s Hospital Foundation Heart Center experts on promoting a heart-healthy lifestyle and recognizing heart problems in children. This milestone month is a great time to commit – as we have – to supporting healthy hearts for children.
Recommended daily for a health heart
The heart is the most important muscle in the body. Let these numbers from CHoR’s heart specialists be your guide for a heart-healthy lifestyle for children. What better to show love for the children in your life than to promote heart health each and every day. Encourage children to:
- Get 9 hours of sleep at night.
- Eat 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
- Limit screen time to 2 hours per day. This includes time spent watching television, playing video games, or on a computer or cell phone.
- Do at least 1 hour of moderate exercise per day. Running, walking, hiking, biking, dancing, jumping rope, swimming, playing tennis, tag or other active games, etc. all count. Moderate intensity activities are activities that require a moderate amount of effort and cause a noticeable increase in heart rate. Check out this exercise video for ideas on family fitness at home.
- Drink 0 sugar-added beverages a day. High consumption of sugar-added beverages – like soda, sweet tea, sports drinks, certain drink mixes and juice – has been associated with obesity. Sugary, carbonated drinks like sodas also contribute to irritation and may cause ulcers and pain in the upper digestive track (stomach, esophagus, etc.). Children should drink water instead of sugar-added beverages for hydration.
Understanding heart problems
Heart issues can be congenital (problems children are born with that developed before birth) or acquired (problems that develop after birth).
Congenital heart defects – The likelihood of a baby being born with a congenital heart defect is almost one in 100. The most common defects are holes in the heart, tight or leaky valves (which direct blood flow to and from the heart), hearts with abnormal connections, and narrowings in the arteries that carry blood from the heart. Some of these defects lead to heart failure and some cause cyanosis (a blue color of the skin and body) because of lower oxygen levels in the blood. Some are minor and do not cause problems, while others are life threatening requiring emergency intervention in the newborn period.
Often, congenital heart defects will not cause symptoms until they are severe. An individual with a defect may have symptoms such as:
- Heart murmurs (abnormal “swishing” sound during the heartbeat cycle)
- Respiratory (breathing) complaints or rapid respiration
- Poor feeding (child tires out and becomes exhausted or sweaty when eating)
- Blue color of the skin and body (cyanosis)
- Abnormal blood pressure
- Other heart defects may remain silent and present suddenly with symptoms and exercise. These symptoms can include:
- Passing out during exercise (syncope)
- Chest pain during exercise
- Heart racing or skipping beats while at rest
- Decreasing exercise endurance from prior performance
- Shortness of breath on exertion that previously did not happen at that level of exercise
Acquired heart problems – The narrowing or blockage of the small blood vessels that carry blood throughout the body, which is a condition called atherosclerosis, begins in early childhood. It is a leading cause of heart attack and stroke, and the leading cause of death in the adult population. Many of its risk factors are genetic, but obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking (active and secondhand) and little to no physical activity are all risk factors for atherosclerosis, as well as for other heart and blood vessel problems later in life. Reducing these risk factors is critical to keeping the heart healthy at any age. Symptoms may be similar to those of children with congenital heart defects (see list above).
If you have concerns or questions about a child’s heart health, tell your child’s primary care physician. Your child’s doctor can contact a pediatric cardiologist directly to answer the question or refer your child to be seen, often on the same day.
Information provided by Dr. William Moskowitz, Chief of Cardiology, and Dr. Thomas Yeh, Chief of Cardiac Surgery and Director of Children’s Hospital Foundation Heart Center