(HealthDay News) -- Teaching children heart-healthy habits now can help protect them from heart disease when they're adults, an expert says.
"The process of atherosclerosis, which is the hardening of the arteries and is known to cause heart attacks, strokes and sudden death, has been shown to begin in early childhood," Dr. Zachary Stone, a primary-care doctor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said in a university news release. "It's important to concentrate on healthy lifestyles in children to prevent adult cardiovascular disease."
The three heart-health areas to watch in children are diet, physical-activity levels and exposure to secondhand smoke.
"Good nutrition can help to decrease cardiovascular disease," Stone said. "It can help prevent obesity, [high blood pressure] and high cholesterol, which are all known cardiovascular risk factors."
A child's diet should be low in saturated fats and mostly include fruits, vegetables and whole grains, he said.
"One can increase physical activity in children by limiting their sedentary activities," Stone said. "Additionally, kids should participate in at least one hour of moderate activity daily to help contribute to their cardiovascular health."
Parents should limit children's television and computer time to one to two hours a day, he suggested.
A smoke-free environment is also important.
"Exposure to secondhand smoke is dangerous to the health of a child for many reasons, including that it can increase a child's risk of developing heart disease as an adult," Stone said.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The American Academy of Family Physicians outlines how to pass on healthy habits to your children.