Children becoming more at-risk for high blood pressure
Yes, children can develop high blood pressure. Yes, it is dangerous. And, yes, more and more of our nation's youth are being diagnosed with this problem.
High blood pressure -- technically known as hypertension – is generally considered an adult disease. But one study showed the number of children diagnosed with high blood pressure nearly doubled in the United States over a 10-year period.
The study's lead author, pediatric nephrologist Dr. Cheryl Tran of the University of Michigan, has called the results "surprising and alarming" -- and notes the number of children requiring hospitalization for pediatric hypertension has been increasing.
The most affected age group was 10 to 18 (68 percent), and most of the patients (55 percent) were boys.
From 12,661 in 1997, the cases increased to 24,602 in 2006 -- causing charges for inpatient care to jump by 50 percent, or $3.1 billion. This does not include the as yet uncalculated outpatient charges that may have been incurred.
So how did hypertension morph from a disease of middle-aged and senior adults to becoming a threat to America's children?
The heart of the matter
The heart pumps blood throughout the body with every beat. The force of the blood as it's driven against the walls of the blood vessels is what is measured as blood pressure. When blood pressure becomes elevated, it causes the heart to work harder. If this condition becomes continual, the risks increase for stroke, heart attack, organ failure or other serious problems.
For all we know about measuring high blood pressure, we don't know exactly what causes essential hypertension. We do know that it is responsible for 95 percent of all hypertension cases. We also know there are certain risk factors that could increase the likelihood of an individual developing it. Some of these include age, gender, family history, diet, obesity and stress.
When reviewing hospitalized children whose primary problem was hypertension, researchers discovered the most common secondary issue was obesity. But there is a caveat to this. Obesity is typically not a reimbursable medical condition, so it was difficult to track due to its not being reported in the database of claims used for the study. Still, it was enough evidence for researchers to link the two.
Port Charlotte pediatrician Dr. Margaret G. Mayo said she was not surprised by the study's findings -- or the suggested link to obesity. She has already been noticing its increase in her practice.
Old problems, young age
Mayo equates the rise in pediatric hypertension to several causes. Age becomes less of a factor because the risk factors of poor diet, obesity and stress were usually found in older adults.
According to the American Heart Association, one in three children and adolescents is considered overweight or obese. That's triple the amount recorded in 1963. Mayo adds that stress from anxiety (being bullied in school is one example, an emotionally tense home situation is another) can also create blood pressure issues.
Mayo advocates children getting their blood pressure checked by the age of 3 or 4 -- especially if there are any known risk factors in their medical history.
"A 7-year-old who is heavy will tend toward being heavy as an adult," she said.
The good news is that, in many cases, children's being overweight is preventable, and Mayo said it often eliminates the hypertension problem.
First, she monitors pediatric patients for a week to make sure the blood pressure is consistently high, and not being caused by a temporary condition. Then she creates a regimen for eating in which the patient records his or her food intake. This includes avoiding "sugary" drinks, eating more vegetables and meeting measurable weekly goals.
"You always have to give them a goal and monitor them," Mayo said. "If you don't stay on top of them, they lose interest."
If those methods don't work, she recommends the child see a cardiologist before the issue becomes critical.
"Pediatric hypertension has become a big problem," Mayo said. "But the best treatment is still prevention."