Teaching Preschoolers Healthy Lifestyle Habits Can lower Risk For Heart Disease, Study Says

A new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that introducing healthy lifestyle habits to kids at a young age can lower their risk of developing heart disease later in life. Healthy lifestyle habits include staying active, eating five portions of fruits/vegetables, and reducing overall salt intake. 

“The SI! Program (Salud Integral – Comprehensive Health) was developed as a multilevel and multi-component school-based program for the promotion of cardiovascular health and achieving lasting lifestyle changes in children from preschool age. It was implemented in three countries from the year 2009 onwards,” said Valentin Fuster, MD, PhD, general director at Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Cardiovasculares (CNIC), director of Mount Sinai Heart and principal investigator of the project.

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The authors reviewed the results which were taken over a period of 10 years, and surveyed more than 3,800 children aged between three to five from 50 schools across Colombia, Spain, and the US. The children were mainly assessed on how their knowledge, habits, and attitudes changed towards a healthy lifestyle. 

Those who participated in the program itself showed a significant increase in knowledge, attitude, and habits that support a healthy lifestyle. Fuster explained that they were able to analyze the success of the program by focusing on the maturation of the children, and changing the questionnaires to adapt with them as they get older. 

Children who received more than 75% of the program had a significant change from the baseline of their overall knowledge, attitudes, and habits, especially when compared to the children who received less than 50% of the program. 

 “The school environment is a great area to introduce healthy lifestyle interventions because children are spending so much of their time there,”  said Rodrigo Fernández-Jiménez, MD, PhD, and author on the study. 

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“There are specific times in a child’s life when improvements can be made to enhance long-term cardiovascular health status. Our review, and previous studies, suggest that four to five years of age is the most favorable time to start a school-based intervention focused on healthy habits.”

“Most preschool interventions focus solely on physical activity and diet. The SI! Program breaks down cardiovascular health into four components. Through the first two components, children are learning how a well-balanced diet and physically active life are directly connected to a healthy heart. Next, they learn about emotion management, which seeks to instill behavior mechanisms against substance abuse – mainly smoking – and dietary decisions later in life. Finally, the children are taught about how the human body works and how it is affected by behavior and lifestyle,” said Gloria Santos-Beneit, PhD, and lead author of the study.

In the future, the authors hope to put a greater focus on the involvement of the families of the children in the study. Socioeconomic status has a major influence on how easy it can be for a child and family to maintain healthy lifestyle habits, so the authors of the study are looking for ways to intervene and make it more accessible to them. 

“Further research is needed to identify specific socioeconomic status factors that influence child health and effectiveness of intervention in the long term, and the issue of sustainability or need for re-intervention,” Fuster said.