Healthy Hearts program serves and protects children

Feb. 24, 2015

Someone should really sew those superhero costumes with a double H on the chest.

After all, they travel in teams, swooping into schools on their strategic mission.healthy hearts coach measures the height of a student.

They carry cool gadgets — plastic heart models, stethoscopes, blood pressure cuffs, cholesterol kits.

Their weapon is education.

They are members of the Healthy Hearts group, and they are out to ensure that our youth charge forward in life with strong cardiovascular systems. They are on a mission, as about 23 percent of elementary students who have been screened have borderline or high cholesterol, and about the same percentage are overweight or obese.

A community service of UCHealth and the brainchild of cardiologist Dr. Gary Luckasen 20 years ago, Healthy Hearts teaches area kids about how the heart and cardiovascular system work and how diet and exercise choices affect heart health.

“Even back then, it was becoming apparent that kids as young as three were developing plaque in their arteries,” said Luckasen. “I thought we needed to start doing something to prevent it.”

“In the coming year, we’ll be visiting 55 elementary schools and eight high schools,” said Healthy Hearts Program Coordinator NaNet Puccetti. “We’ll be educating about 8,000 young people, and we’ll be screening over half of them. This gives us an excellent opportunity to change lives for the better.”

healthy hearts coach gets a blood sample from a student.School visits and screenings

Healthy Hearts employs 15 educators in addition to Puccetti. Schools in five area districts are served by the free program.

The first thing the Healthy Hearts team members do at a school is teach. A Healthy Hearts educator typically visits fourth- or fifth-grade classrooms three days in a row for 45-minute sessions, covering topics such as heart anatomy, cholesterol, nutrition, exercise and tobacco avoidance.

By the end of the third session, the kids know which cholesterol is the good kind (HDL), how many minutes of exercise they should be getting each day (at least 60), how big a serving of vegetables is (the size of their fist), and much more.

“We do a pre- and post-education test with the kids to gauge their knowledge gain,” said Meghan Willis, one of the Healthy Hearts educators. “We also do three- and six-month follow-up surveys to see if they’re retaining the information and using it to make healthy choices in their lives. Our data shows that after Healthy Hearts educates them, the kids are making positive long-lasting changes, such as cutting back on sugary foods and drinks, getting more physical activity and avoiding secondhand smoke.”Mendoza-and-Angie-Tovar

“The program’s education is very in-depth,” said Wellington Eyestone Elementary’s P.E. teacher Sandy Fetzer. “The presenters were extremely knowledgeable and had a great way with the kids. I’ve heard teachers talking about how much their students learned.”

After the teaching comes the testing. On a recent day, five Healthy Hearts clinicians descended on Eyestone Elementary. In minutes they’d set up a miniature heart health clinic in a small spare room.

a mom and daughter hold up their fingers where they got pricked for their tests.Soon fifth-graders began to meander in. They took seats in one of four testing stations, where a Healthy Hearts educator explained what she’d be doing, took the child’s blood pressure and pricked the child’s finger for the cholesterol test. The children also rotated in and out of the fifth station, where an educator measured and recorded each child’s height and weight.

The educators chatted with the kids as they gathered their numbers. “Tell me about what you do for physical activity each day,” one student was asked.

“I do district track,” the child answered. “And I dance. So I usually exercise one hour and 30 minutes to two hours a day.” Stacey-Fingerstick

Light-bulb moments

“Do I get to keep the blood?” wondered another student. “And what’s the blood for again?”

It’s common for children to have light-bulb moments while they’re being screened.

“I can’t believe that what I eat can actually affect my heart!” said one girl.

When a boy shared that he can’t exercise because he lives in an apartment, the Healthy Hearts educator brainstormed with him ways to be physically active that fit his circumstances.

In this manner, each Healthy Hearts screening participant receives 10 to 15 minutes of one-on-one heart-health coaching in addition to body mass index, blood pressure and non-fasting cholesterol scores, which the children bring home to their parents in a sealed envelope.

“Families are encouraged to call us if they have questions about their child’s screening results,” said Puccetti. “We also follow up on those who have really high numbers.”

Getting families involved

About 23 percent of screened elementary students have borderline or high cholesterol, and about the same percentage are overweight or obese. Those with concerning results are invited, along with their parents and siblings, to participate in Healthy Hearts for Healthy Families.

During the class, which meets once a week for six weeks, educators use fun games and activities to teach families about making healthy snacks, incorporating exercise into their daily routines, and shopping for good food on a budget. The class will soon be offered in Spanish as well as English.

“We made a lot of healthy changes as a result of the family program,” said mom Nicole Lovelace. “We wear Fitbits and strive to reach 10,000 steps a day through family activities like taking walks together or shooting hoops. We’ve also changed our eating habits. For example, we try to eat fish once a week now. This is a great improvement, as we used to eat fish once a year! We’ve also eliminated sugary drinks.”

Healthy hearts for the long haul

Healthy Hearts also educates and screens tenth-graders. When they happen to rescreen students who were screened in elementary school, Puccetti isolates those results to determine if the program is having a long-lasting impact.

Almost 82 percent of rescreened young people either maintained a healthy cholesterol score or lowered their cholesterol. Of the 20 percent who were overweight or obese in elementary school, about a third achieved a healthy weight by tenth grade.

“Our data indicates that Healthy Hearts kids may be more likely to become healthy high schoolers,” said Puccetti.

What’s more, Healthy Hearts invites kids with high numbers to participate in research studies on ways to lower cholesterol and increase physical activity, for example. The results of these studies will benefit future generations of children.

That double H on the chest would look great in red. Any volunteers to sew costumes out there?