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Physical inactivity during childhood linked to heart damage in early adulthood

A recent study presented at the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) Congress 2023 has found that physical inactivity during childhood and adolescence could set the stage for heart attacks and strokes later in life.

The researchers analyzed data from the Children of the 90s study, one of the world’s largest cohorts with lifestyle measurements from birth. The analysis revealed that sedentary time accumulated from childhood to young adulthood was linked to heart damage, even in individuals with normal weight and blood pressure. 

“All those hours of screen time in young people add up to a heavier heart, which we know from studies in adults raises the likelihood of heart attack and stroke,” said study author Andrew Agbaje, a clinical and pediatric epidemiologist at the University of Eastern Finland.

Focus of the study

At 11 years of age, children were asked to wear an activity tracker for a week. This was repeated when they were 15 and 24 years of age. Scientists assessed the weight of the heart’s left ventricle by echocardiography (a type of ultrasound scan), at 17 and 24 years of age and reported in grams relative to height (g/m2.7). 

Then, the researchers analyzed the correlation between physical inactivity at 11 to 24 years of age and heart measurements at 17 to 24 years of age, after adjusting for factors such as age, sex, blood pressure, body fat, physical activity, smoking, and socioeconomic factors. The cohort included 766 children (55 percent girls and 45 percent boys).

What the researchers discovered 

The analysis revealed that at 11 years of age, children were sedentary for an average of 362 minutes per day, a value increasing to 474 minutes in adolescence (15 years of age) and 531 minutes in young adulthood (24 years of age). Thus, sedentary time increased by an average of 169 minutes (2.8 hours) per day from childhood to young adulthood.

During this period, each one-minute increase in sedentary time was linked to a 0.004 g/m2.7 increase in left ventricular mass between 17 to 24 years of age. 

When multiplied by an additional 169 minutes this equates to a 0.7 g/m2.7 daily rise – the equivalent of a three-gram increase in left ventricular mass between echocardiography measurements at the average height gain. 

Increased risk of heart disease 

Unfortunately, a previous study conducted on adults has found that a similar increase in left ventricular mass over a seven-year period was associated with a two-fold increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and death.

“Children were sedentary for more than six hours a day and this increased by nearly three hours a day by the time they reached young adulthood. Our study indicates that the accumulation of inactive time is related to heart damage regardless of body weight and blood pressure,” said Agjabe.

“Parents should encourage children and teenagers to move more by taking them out for a walk and limiting time spent on social media and video games. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ‘If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But by all means keep moving.’” 

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