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High Blood Pressure on the Rise in American Kids

By Laura Flynn McCarthy

BPKids.ArticleHigh blood pressure: It’s not just for adults anymore.

The risk of high blood pressure among American children rose by 27 percent over a recent 13 year period, according to a new study in the medical journal Hypertension. The Harvard Medical School researchers compared data in children aged 8 to 17. In the 1988-1994 date range, 8.2 percent of girls and 15.8 of boys had elevated blood pressure. Fast forward to 1999-2008, and it’s 12.6 percent of girls and 19.2 percent of boys.

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You might not even know your child has high blood pressure — unless it’s checked. “High blood pressure is mostly a silent illness, producing no obvious physical symptoms, but children who have high blood pressure are at increased risk of heart disease as they get older,” says Elizabeth A. Jackson, M.D., assistant professor of medicine, division of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Michigan Hospital and Health Systems.

The Harvard researchers point to two likely factors to explain the increase: weight and sodium. More children are now overweight and more children (especially girls) in this study had large waistlines, both risk factors for high blood pressure. The second factor is high salt (sodium) intake. More than 80 percent of children in both studies consumed too much sodium, mostly from processed foods. In both studies, children with the greatest sodium intake were 36 percent more likely than those with the lowest intake to have high blood pressure. African American children were also at slightly greater risk of high blood than children of other races.

Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of the arteries as the heart pumps blood, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI). If blood pressure rises and stays high over time, it can damage the heart, blood vessels, kidneys, and other body parts. In adults, normal blood pressure is a reading below 120/80 and high blood pressure is a reading of 140/90 or greater, but in children there is no distinct cut-off point. Instead, a high blood pressure is a reading that’s higher than 95 percent of children who are the same sex, age and height as your child. For example, for a 12-year-old boy of average (50th percentile) weight and height, high pressure would be a reading above 123/81 (greater than 95 percent of boys the same age, weight, and height), according to the NHLBI.

High blood pressure in children can warn of health problems to come. “High blood pressure is a sign that someone’s overall health is not as good as it should be,” says Dr. Jackson. “This study provides more evidence of the links between high blood pressure and being overweight and consuming too much salt, but it also speaks to overall health.” The data is a representative sample of the U.S. population. “The big message of this study is that we as a country need to focus on improving the way we eat and how much we exercise not only so that our blood pressure is in healthy ranges, but so that our overall health improves.”

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Laura Flynn McCarthy is a New Hampshire-based writer who specializes in health and parenting topics.

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