Kids Have High Blood Pressure, Too
Hypertension isn't a problem just for grown-ups anymore. Children can have high blood pressure, too, especially those who are overweight or obese.
By Elizabeth Shimer Bowers
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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High blood pressure, also called hypertension, is no longer a “silent killer” hitting primarily middle-aged adults. These days, children of all ages have high blood pressure. Even rates of high blood pressure in young adults are growing.
Just over the past decade, hospitalization for hypertension in children and adolescents has nearly doubled, according to a study published this month inHypertension. Additionally, those patients are staying in the hospital twice as long as those hospitalized for other reasons.
As the waists of American children have grown, their weight has become a major hypertension risk factor for their age group. Obese children are more likely to have hypertension than children of a normal weight, according to a recent study from the American Heart Association
For the study, Howard J. Pratt, MD, a professor of medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine, and his colleagues followed 1,111 healthy children in Indiana for four and a half years. When the children became overweight — meaning they reached a body mass index, or BMI, of the 85th percentile or above — their risk of obesity-associated health problems increased substantially. Ultimately, the researchers found that overweight and obese children had a risk for high blood pressure nearly three times that of normal-weight children.
“One of the biggest concerns of this finding is that even mild hypertension early in life, if not treated, could lead to a more serious form of hypertension — one that becomes very difficult to control,” says Dr. Pratt.
Obesity: A Major Hypertension Risk Factor
Combine hours spent sedentary in front of television shows, video games, and computers with high-calorie, high-sugar diets and you get the rising numbers of U.S. children who are overweight or obese. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 18.1 percent of youths ages 12 to 19, 19.6 percent of children ages 6 to 11, and 10.4 percent of children 2 to 5 years old are obese.
“The exact mechanism whereby an increase in weight leads to high blood pressure in children is not understood, and there are probably multiple reasons why it happens,” Pratt says. “Our study showed that if one becomes quite overweight or obese, the impact of weight on blood pressure is very significant. People — children included — who are in the high range for weight can be in real danger in terms of high blood pressure as well as what this hypertension can do to the kidney and heart.”
Health Effects of High Blood Pressure in Children
Left untreated, hypertension can lead to conditions and events such as stroke, heart failure, kidney problems, blindness, and heart attacks — even in children.
Plus, as Pratt points out, an overweight child with hypertension is likely to become an overweight adult with hypertension. Not to mention all the other risks overweight children face, including diabetes, breathing problems, and trouble sleeping. So the sooner the child makes lifestyle changes, the better.
Reducing High Blood Pressure in Children
The first step in reducing high blood pressure in children is to recognize the problem. In most cases, hypertension has few, if any, signs or symptoms initially. “The only way to know if a child has high blood pressure is to measure it,” Pratt says.
If you’re the parent of an overweight or obese child, his or her blood pressure checked. If it’s high, talk with your pediatrician about key lifestyle changes to promote weight loss, such as:
- Increase activity.Most children need at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day. “Exercise is important not just because it burns calories but because it encourages children to eat more appropriately,” Pratt says.
- Turn off the TV.Television, video games, and computer time restrict a child’s activity. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises no television before children reach age 2 and no more than two hours a day of what it calls “screen time” after that. “Children who watch a lot of TV tend to eat more,” warns Pratt.
- Avoid soft drinks.Sugary drinks are high in calories but don’t typically provide many nutrients. “Children should notdrinktheir calories,” Pratt says.
Overall, to prevent high blood pressure in children and minimize other risks of obesity, Pratt says, several lifestyle changes are necessary. Plenty of exercise and a diet filled with fresh fruits and vegetables can keep both pounds and hypertension at bay — for the entire family.
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Video: High Blood Pressure | Hypertension | Nucleus Health
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