What is Your Child’s Risk of a Heart Attack?

obesity by age and year

Pretty high if you are a Gen-X or Y parent. My last post may have depressed you or even made you a little mad (I think I called you fat).  If so, this post is going to really piss you off.

It looks like Gen-X and Y are passing down the “sit on your ass and eat crap” gene to our kids – the “Net Generation”.  As a result, children today are experiencing high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes, and elevated cholesterol – previously adult conditions.  Unfortunately, the perfect storm for early-onset cardiovascular disease and heart attacks.

NetGen’s Fate

I am not trying to piss anyone off.  As a father, I am very concerned about the declining health of our NetGen children. The American Heart Association (AHA) found that nearly one third of today’s children are overweight or obese – one third!

Although the moniker “NetGen” sounds kind of cool, it does not conjure images of a very active lifestyle.  My kids are in the 6-11 age group in the chart above and my wife and I are in a constant battle to reduce their screen time and get them outside.

I don’t think we are alone in this battle.  This quote from former Surgeon General Richard Carmona puts it in perspective:

Because of the increasing rates of obesity, unhealthy eating habits and physical inactivity, we may see the first generation that will be less healthy and have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

I am not sure if that quote is about Gen-X, Y, or the NetGen, but you get the point.

There is Hope

I provide a lot of information on this site about self-improvement.  Hopefully some of that has sunk in and is incorporated into your new healthy lifestyle. Why – because you have a generation to save!

One of the first things you can do for your children is make them aware of heart disease in their family history (if there is any).  My kids are already aware of the crappy hand Dad dealt them.  It’s hard to ignore the big zipper running down the middle of Daddy’s chest.

Smoking has already been established as evil with my children.  My wife and I also frequently speak with our kids about eating healthy and exercising.  Talking is great, but kids learn by watching.  So set a good example – eat your vegetables and exercise (I am assuming you no longer smoke at the dinner table).

Need more help getting your kids to eat their veggies?  Here is an outstanding post on the Fooducate blog that finally unlocks the mystery.  Guess which one of the following three strategies works best to get your kids to eat healthy foods?

  1. Eat it, it’s good for you
  2. Eat it, it’s tasty
  3. Eat it

You guessed it, number three.  We are parents, we can tell our kids what to do.  Eating healthy is not an option.   Now with that mystery finally solved, on to exercise.  Get up off the couch and get active with your kids.  Play with them!  Watching sports on TV with your kids does not count as active playtime.

Let’s Move

I am far from an expert in motivating children.  Just ask the kids and parents on the kindergartener soccer team I coached this year.   What a cluster….I mean challenge.  Fear not, there are a lot of great resources out there to help us parents.  Check out the First Lady’s Let’s Move initiative.

The physical and emotional health of an entire generation and the economic health and security of our nation is at stake. – Michelle Obama

The American Heart Association also has a program called Voices for Heathy Kids.  Both offer similar strategies for reversing the declining health of our children.  Eat healthy and get active!  It’s pretty simple, but definitely a challenge for today’s “over committed” families.

Time for the guilt.  Disregarding our own health is irresponsible enough.  We can’t encourage the same behavior in our children.  A healthy lifestyle is a family commitment.  Just start small, make it fun, and make it a habit.

References:

“Overweight in Children.”  The American Heart Association, 17 Mar. 2014. Web. 22 June 2014.

“Statistics Fact Sheet – Youth and Cardiovascular Diseases” Go AS, Mozaffarian D, Roger VL, Benjamin EJ, Berry JD, Blaha MJ, Dai S, Ford ES, Fox CS, Franco S, Fullerton HJ, Gillespie C, Hailpern SM, Heit JA, Howard VJ, Huffman MD, Judd SE, Kissela BM, Kittner SJ, Lackland DT, Lichtman JH, Lisabeth LD, Mackey RH, Magid DJ, Marcus GM, Marelli A, Matchar DB, McGuire DK, Mohler ER 3rd, Moy CS, Mussolino ME, Neumar RW, Nichol G, Pandey DK, Paynter NP, Reeves MJ, Sorlie PD, Stein J, Towfighi A, Turan TN, Virani SS, Wong ND, Woo D, Turner MB; on behalf of the American Heart Association Statistics Committee and Stroke Statistics Subcommittee. Heart disease and stroke statistics—2014 update: a report from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2014;129:e28–e292.

The Head and the Heart

Its All In Your Head

When I had a heart attack at 41, a number of thoughts went through my head, and none of them were very good.  An inventory of my mental state post heart attack:  shock, panic, guilt, anger, denial, fatalistic acceptance.  Interestingly, that was also my pattern of thought about most life matters pre-heart attack.  Must be the Irish in me!

Let’s take a look at each one of my my mental reactions in a little more detail before diving into the connection between the head and the heart.

Shock

Holy crap, what just happened?  I didn’t remember going into cardiac arrest or having a heart attack.  In fact, I didn’t wake up for a couple of days.  As the fog cleared and I was informed of my condition, I really could not believe what had just happened to me.  With my family history and reckless lifestyle, I anticipated clutching my chest at some point in life – just not at such a young age.

Panic

I’m going to die!  I was hooked up to a bunch of machines and had tubes coming out of every orifice of my body.  They even made new orifices to stick tubes into!  They told me I needed open heart surgery.  What about my family?  I have a three year old and my wife is pregnant with our second child.  How am I going to pull through and support my family?   I still needed to work for another 25 years!  A million thoughts like this went through my mind.

Guilt

What have I done?  Everyone around me offered tremendous love and support and I felt like I deserved none of it.  I put myself in this situation.  I knew my family history with heart disease.  Yet, I chose to smoke, drink like a fish, eat like crap, and sit on my ass.  Now I had put the future of my family in jeopardy.  Bad Paul.

Anger

Why me?  Early anger was mostly directed at myself.  Why did I make such stupid choices?  How could I be so reckless and irresponsible?  Not being a fan of self-directed anger, I moved on to directing my anger towards others.  Why are other people making healthy choices and living happy lives?  Yes, I was resentful of healthy and happy people (who isn’t?).

Denial/Fatalistic Acceptance

Carry on, nothing to see here.  Another trait I learned from my Irish parents. I am not sure why I am so obsessed with my Irish heritage right now.  Here is a great quote from a recent Lonely Planet guidebook that may explain it all:

The Irish – fatalistic and pessimistic to the core – will shrug their shoulders and just get on with their lives.

That’s me.  Strap on the blinders and go!

Fix the Head, Fix the Heart

There is a head-heart connection and for me it is the key to preventing my second heart attack.  I couldn’t fix my heart until I fixed my head!  So what was wrong with my head?  A pretty loaded question.  I found a New York Times article, “Why Smokers Still Smoke”, that offers an interesting theory.

the personality trait that distinguishes smokers from nonsmokers is their relative inability to delay satisfaction and respect long-term considerations (like their health). In other words: it’s their poor self-control.

Bingo! Not only did I lack poor self-control, I completely ignored any personal responsibility for my actions.  Here I was in my mid-forties, and I suddenly realized I was responsible for the rest of my life.  I was responsible for preventing my second heart attack!  Without this mental shift I truly believe I would be dead right now.

So how did I come to make this obvious but elusive mental shift?  By taking an honest inventory of my life.  Where had I been and where did I want to go?  This is not an easy exercise for someone like me who preferred to let life happen.  Once I discovered a morsel of self-control and realized I was responsible for my actions, I found doing the right thing became much easier.

Action Needs a Plan?

Say what?  Doing the right thing became easier when I finally started to set goals and make plans.  Remember the process of deciding where I wanted to go with my life?  In my compromised situation, it was pretty easy – I wanted to live.  Instead of putting on the blinders and seeing what life brought me, I needed to set a goal and make a plan.

My immediate goal was to get healthy.  But how do I make that happen, how do I translate a goal into a plan and then into action?  Keep it simple (stupid).  Here is what worked for me:

  1. Set a goal
  2. Make a plan
  3. Share the plan
  4. Execute

Exercise seemed like a good place to start if I wanted to get healthier.   I plotted out my exercise program on a calendar.  I shared my plan with my family and friends to make sure there was a built in method of accountability.  Then, I just did it.

Guess what, it worked!  Fixing my head may not fix my heart, but I have a feeling it will go a long way in preventing my second heart attack.

Check your head!

References:

Eyal Ert and Eldad Yechiam. “Why Smokers Still Smoke.” New York Times, July 26, 2013. Accessed June 7, 2014.  http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/28/opinion/sunday/why-smokers-still-smoke.html?_r=0.