Preventing heart disease starting in childhood

The current generation of adults is the first to have a lower life expectancy than their parents. Heart disease is partly to blame. Norrina Allen is focused on reversing that trend by studying the warning signs and behaviors that make us susceptible to heart disease as early as infants. View Halo Profile >>

Tell me about your research…

My work focuses on cardiovascular health across the lifetime. We examine the trajectories of risk factors in order to understand how heart disease develops and who is at the greatest risk.

Can you explain that to a non-scientist?

You may be surprised to know that this generation is the first in decades to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. Much of this is due to a higher burden of heart disease. My work is focused on understanding how people go from being healthy to having heart disease. So for example, for that 60-year-old heart attack patient, what was happening when they were 30? 20? Even 15 that may have contributed to their heart attack risk. Our work has demonstrated that cardiovascular health gets worse as we age and that decline starts much earlier than most people realize. Already by age 5, preschoolers are developing unhealthy lifestyles and behaviors, such as a poor diet.

Our work has demonstrated that cardiovascular health gets worse as we age and that decline starts much earlier than most people realize. Already by age 5, preschoolers are developing unhealthy lifestyles and behaviors, such as a poor diet.

These and other behaviors will contribute to them becoming overweight or obese, developing high blood pressure and high cholesterol – all major risk factors for heart disease. The origins of heart disease are in childhood!

How could it someday impact patient lives?

I am sure you would agree it is easier to maintain a good habit as opposed to trying to change your lifestyle and behavior; that’s why we believe that preventing the loss of ideal cardiovascular health is critical if we are going to prevent heart disease, and in order to prevent the loss, we need to start in preschool, if not earlier, to promote heart health. We need “Precision Prevention.” In order to be able to implement precision prevention our work seeks to answer three questions.

We believe that preventing the loss of ideal cardiovascular health is critical if we are going to prevent heart disease, and in order to prevent the loss, we need to start in preschool, if not earlier, to promote heart health.

First, we need to know which kids are at the highest risk? For example, are children who are overweight at 10 going to go on to be overweight adults. Second, we need to know when is the best time to intervene. We know that there are certain critical periods in life, such as at age 18, when kids are acquiring unhealthy behaviors at a faster rate that will have effects throughout their lifetime. And, lastly, how can we can most effectively keep them healthy. We believe that technology can be harnessed to improve heart health. Only by answering these questions will we be able to reduce the burden of heart disease in this generation and those to come.

We know that there are certain critical periods in life, such as at age 18, when kids are acquiring unhealthy behaviors at a faster rate that will have effects throughout their lifetime.