A recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count data center finds that heart disease is the fifth-highest cause of death for children and teenagers in Arkansas.
At five-percent, heart disease is dwarfed by other causes, such as accidents, which account for 34 percent of childhood deaths. But doctors say heart disease can still endanger kids and put many others at risk for problems in adulthood and lead to heart attacks under the age of 40.
“Kids can develop acquired heart disease, or disease that they weren’t born with but acquired over the course of their life, but actually it’s much, much more common for kids with heart problems to be born with them,” said Dr. Brian Eble, a pediatric cardiologist with Arkansas Children’s Hospital.
He said many of the youngest heart patients will be fine, with some problems resolving on their own even without surgery.
In other cases, children start developing heart disease, such as hardening of the arteries similar to an adult’s, which may cause no symptoms or problems for many years but then lead to an early heart attack as an adult.
“These days we are seeing it as early as 30’s,” said Dr. Andrea Read, a pediatrician and Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs at the NYIT College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State University.
A recent report from the American Heart Association found that obese kids may start showing signs of the heart disease that may eventually lead to a heart attack as early as age 8.
Heart disease in the very young may also lie dormant until a teen athlete collapses on a field of play from unexpected cardiac arrest.
“You can actually have a completely normal heart and, very rarely, have a viral infection that has gotten into your heart muscle that you didn’t even know about that can cause athletes or adolescents to die suddenly,” said Eble.
He also cited cases where a young athlete had a normal heart that was fatally injured by a severe blow to the chest wall during sports.
Other kids are born with complex and life-threatening heart problems, such as hypoplastic left heart syndrome, in which one side of the heart is critically underdeveloped. Newborn heart problems got some attention earlier this year when late night host Jimmy Kimmel used his comedy show to speak out about his infant son's condition, which was a defect called tetralogy of Fallot with pulmonary atresia, and call for an end to political strife over health care.
"This isn't football. There are no teams," Kimmel said.
Hypoplastic left heart syndrome led to a lifetime of open heart surgeries, a pacemaker and eventually a heart transplant for Grace Henderson, now 10, of Wynne.
Today, Grace is not just surviving but doing very well as she gets ready to enter the fourth grade this fall, according to her mother, Dilliu Henderson. Her summer is spent with cheerleading, softball, artwork and fun with her friends, older brother and younger sister.
“When your child hasn’t had a lot of normal, and all of a sudden they get to have a little bit of normal, it’s a blessing because they yearn for that,” Henderson said.
This story is produced by Arkansas Public Media, a statewide journalism collaboration among public media organizations. Arkansas Public Media reporting is funded in part through a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the support of partner stations KUAR, KUAF, KASU and KTXK and from members of the public. You can learn more and support Arkansas Public Media’s reporting at arkansaspublicmedia.org. Arkansas Public Media is Natural State news with context.