Teaching Heart-Healthy Habits to High-Risk Children and Families

Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai has received a $3.8 million grant from the American Heart Association (AHA) to promote cardiovascular health through early education and intervention programs targeting high-risk children and their parents in Harlem and the Bronx.

Mount Sinai researchers will study the genes and lifestyles of 600 preschoolers and their parents or guardians who live in these communities, which are associated with high rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. The investigators will track whether the interventions lead to healthier eating habits and additional exercise. They will also examine the participants’ DNA and RNA to understand how genetics plays a role in the development of cardiovascular disease.

“A better understanding of the interaction between behavior, environment, and genetics will help us develop more effective techniques to prevent cardiovascular disease,” says the grant’s lead investigator, Valentin Fuster, MD, PhD, Director of Mount Sinai Heart, Physician-in-Chief of The Mount Sinai Hospital, and the Richard Gorlin, MD, Heart Research Foundation Professor. “Our research tests the hypotheses that habits are formed very early in life and that children can help their parents live healthier lives.”

Dr. Fuster has introduced similar preschool programs in Colombia and Spain that use popular characters from Sesame Workshop. Results from these studies show that with education and support from parents and teachers, young children can develop healthy habits.

Principal investigators of the grant include Zahi A. Fayad, PhD, Director of the Translational and Molecular Imaging Institute; and Eric E. Schadt, PhD, Director of the Icahn Institute for Genomics and Multiscale Biology, and the Jean C. and James W. Crystal Professor of Genomics.

In the United States, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

By 2020, the AHA goal is to improve the cardiovascular health of all Americans and reduce deaths from cardiovascular disease and stroke by 20 percent.

The grant calls for Dr. Fayad to focus on the parents or caregivers. “We will measure their cardiovascular risk factors, such as blood pressure and cholesterol, and take an ultrasound of their blood vessels,” Dr. Fayad says. By doing this, the adults will be able to visualize their health problems. “That information is powerful,” he adds. “We think that will help motivate parents to be receptive to the educational materials we provide, which will be reinforced with peer-to-peer support.”

Dr. Schadt’s project will examine the cross-generation genetic and genomic information of the children and their parents, exploring how genes work together in the context of lifestyle habits and behavior. The goal is to identify new approaches to disease treatment and prevention.

Other key members of Mount Sinai’s team include: Roger Hajjar, MD, Director of the Cardiovascular Research Center at Mount Sinai Heart, and the Arthur and Janet C. Ross Professor of Medicine; Annetine Gelijns, PhD, Chair of the Department of Health Evidence and Policy, and Edmond A. Guggenheim Professor of Health Policy; Philip J. Landrigan, MD, Dean for Global Health, and the Ethel H. Wise Professor and Chairman, Department of Preventive Medicine; and Roxana Mehran, MD, Professor of Medicine (Cardiology), and Director of Interventional Cardiovascular Research and Clinical Trials.

Mount Sinai was among four major medical centers that received a total of $15 million from the AHA. The other AHA Strategically Focused Prevention Research Network Centers are Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical Center, and Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

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