The opinion in The Advocate dated Sept. 3, “Old Hearts Die Young,” is extremely important. Louisiana, Mississippi and Arkansas always vie to see who is the worst for health problems. We are the fattest and have the most heart disease in the United States. It is good to see this article, since in our heart study on children from Bogalusa in 1985, we began noticing the bad effects of obesity. Obesity resulted in increasing levels of other risk factors for heart disease.
The investigators at Pennington published with us in 2010 that the obesity epidemic was continuing. This alerted HBO to use us to introduce the forceful documentary, “The Weight of the Nation” in 2012.
“Old Hearts Die Young” is just the research we began conducting in 1972 funded by the National Institute of Health. We began studying schoolchildren, 5 to 17 years of age. In over 40 years, our subjects are becoming older and developing coronary artery disease, hypertension, diabetes and obesity. From the original 6,000 infants, children and adolescents we have followed, more than 600 subjects have died from causes such as vehicle accidents, homicides and even suicides. Some 120 have died from different causes of heart disease that began to appear clinically in the third for fourth decade of life. If we eliminate causes like pulmonary, congenital, severe diabetes, we found 46 dying from heart disease and myocardial infarction at an average age of 44 years. Sorta young to die, even from CAD!
But don’t despair! Something can and is being done. Based on the Bogalusa findings, we are learning how to educate children on the dangers of obesity, its bad effects on the cardiovascular system, the heart, kidneys and brain. A comprehensive, strongly behavioral health education “Heart Ahead/Heart Smart” program in elementary schools in Washington Parish is accomplishing improved nutrition and increased physical activity. But equally important beginning in kindergarten, the program addresses social and public health problems, self-esteem, dropouts, bullying, tobacco and alcohol use and teenage pregnancy. It also involves teachers and parents. We already know it helps control obesity and improves physical activity. In one school of 122 students, 20 actually lost weight. The average weight gain is 5 pounds for young children at this age; the school average became 1.7 pounds. For the President Fitness Challenge, encouraged by presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, the ¼-mile run was reduced from 3.5 to 2.5 minutes. So we are having an effect!
We want to thank Pennington and LSU Medical School for its work on prevention. Louisiana can now be proud. Instead of last, it can be first on prevention of the young dying from old hearts.
Gerald S. Berenson, MD