stephen daniels_Blog

Stephen Daniels, M.D., Ph.D., has seen child obesity and related health problems explode over the course of his career.

When he was a young researcher in the early 1980s, for example, Type 2 diabetes was so rare among children that it was known as “adult onset diabetes.” Today, it’s not uncommon at all among youths, and one of every three is overweight or obese.

“More and more, we realized it’s the environment in general and the environment in the home that have the biggest impact on diet and physical activity,” said Daniels, chairman of the department of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and pediatrician-in-chief and L. Joseph Butterfield Chair in Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

Daniels was recognized this month for his many efforts to change that environment, receiving the American Heart Association’s highest volunteer honor, the Gold Heart award. Daniels has played a vital role in the American Heart Association’s fight against childhood obesity. He was key in developing the organization’s relationship with the William J. Clinton Foundation to form the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, founded to fight childhood obesity and teach kids healthy habits.

“We could have a dramatic impact on heart disease and stroke if we could get the population moving in the right direction,” said Daniels, who is the associate editor of The Journal of Pediatrics. “Only about 15 percent of cardiovascular disease is inheritable. That means 85 percent is lifestyle.”

Early in his career, Daniels started helping children and their families make lifestyle changes at a cholesterol and hypertension clinic in Cincinnati that he set up with a group of dietitians, clinicians and psychologists. This ultimately expanded to include a weight management clinic. The clinic helped families change their ideas about food and activity with basic behavior change principles. The idea was to monitor behaviors and reward the good ones with simple rewards like stickers, playdates or time with parents.

“It’s not specifically about losing weight or receiving fancy rewards — it’s about the decisions you make every day,” he said.

Daniels advises parents to take it one step at a time when tackling this problem. For example, start by eliminating sugary drinks. Next, look at physical activity and set a goal to the park four days a week. Do it because your child’s ideal heart health is a precious resource — and many kids lose it by their adolescence. This increases the potential for health problems that can follow them into adulthood.

“If an individual can maintain a low-risk state — with normal blood pressure, cholesterol and weight, without smoking, and with no diabetes throughout life — if they get to age 45 or 50 in a low-risk state, they have a vanishingly low risk of cardiovascular disease and a 10-year longer life expectancy,” he said.

Daniels grew up in Chicago, where his dad was a psychiatrist who subsequently became the dean of two medical schools. His mom was a nurse early on, but she became a stay-at-home mom as the family grew. Conversations around the dinner table focused on the importance of academics and science, so it wasn’t a surprise when Daniels followed a medical path.

Daniels was interested in “everything” — from art history to psychology.

“When I realized that you could do all of those things and ultimately still meet the requirements for medical school, I became more and more interested in this as a career path,” he said.

He earned his medical degree from the University of Chicago. He focused on pediatrics because he was drawn to the idea of prevention. “Rather than dealing with risk factors that had already developed, you could think in a more preventative direction,” he said.

He got his master’s degree in public health from Harvard University and did his residency in pediatrics and his fellowship in pediatric cardiology at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. In 1989 he received his doctorate in epidemiology.

Along the way, Daniels received important support from the American Heart Association.

“My first research grant was from the AHA when I was a fellow in the early 1980s, and ultimately I got an established investigator award,” he said. “Those opportunities for funding were really critical for my long-term career development.”

He has remained a committed volunteer ever since.

“It really is a joy to work with the American Heart Association, and I’ve worked with lots of different healthcare organizations. The AHA is very different. It’s an organization of action and accomplishment.”

When he’s not working or volunteering, Daniels and his wife, Dee, a nurse practitioner, love sports, hiking, biking and skiing. Their four children are grown, but he enjoys the little ones he sees in his practice, and especially his new grandson.

“People ask, ‘isn’t it hard to take care of kids who are sick?’ What I love is their resilience and how they respond to difficult situations — they’re amazing.”