Four new research projects focused on children’s heart health were announced Thursday by the American Heart Association.

Experts say that helping children maintain ideal cardiovascular health is more effective than taking a wait-and-see approach and treating disease in adulthood. The aim of the AHA’s Strategically Focused Research Network for children is to help reach that goal through studies looking at childhood obesity, maintaining ideal heart health, congenital heart disease and rheumatic heart disease.

The network will dole out a total of nearly $15 million to four institutions, with each center receiving $3.7 million over four years, starting July 1. They are:

  • Developing evidence-based strategies to strengthen the health system’s response to rheumatic heart disease to improve diagnosis and prevention globally. In many countries, rheumatic heart disease is the most common acquired heart disease in children and young adults and affects an estimated 33 million people worldwide as of 2013. The research is led by Craig Sable, M.D., at the Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C.
  • Aiming to prevent or predict congenital heart disease and improve decision-making between parents and physicians. The team will use machine-learning data mining algorithms to approach congenital heart disease as a family disease to look at causes, as well as the impact of maternal-fetal environment on health. The research is led by Martin Tristani-Firouzi, M.D., at the University of Utah.
  • Hoping to bridge the gap in heart-health knowledge between birth and early adulthood. Although almost everyone is born with ideal cardiovascular health, more than 90 percent lose it by age 50, said Bradley Marino, M.D., of Northwestern University, who will lead the research. The project will provide evidence for innovative practices to preserve heart health in children, stimulating new approaches to research.
  • Tackling childhood obesity by understanding its genetic influences and developing effective interventions for the one-third of U.S. children and adolescents who are overweight or obese. The research team led by Jennifer Li, M.D., at the Duke Center for Pediatric Obesity Research wants to know if gut bacteria affects a young person’s chances of becoming obese and how obese children respond to weight loss therapy. They’ll also look at how to best engage families to treat obese children and which obesity treatments are most effective.

The children’s research network is one of several networks funded by the AHA. Other Strategically Focused Research Networks study prevention, hypertension, disparities, women’s health, heart failure, and obesity.

The AHA will launch new networks focused on vascular disease and atrial fibrillation in 2018.