High blood pressure is something you know may affect you as an adult, but did you know that it can also affect children? Childhood hypertension (high blood pressure) is now one of the most common health concerns in children and adolescents. Being that there are usually no symptoms, measuring your child’s blood pressure at routine well-child visits is crucial for diagnosing and treating high blood pressure early.
How Does High Blood Pressure Affect My Child?
High blood pressure is a serious condition in childhood. A consistently high force of blood pushing against the walls of the blood vessels quietly causes damage to the cells of the arteries’ inner lining. High blood pressure can also damage the heart by causing it to work harder to pump blood to the body. Over time, the strain on the heart can cause heart muscles to weaken and work less efficiently. Numerous studies have shown that elevated blood pressure in childhood increases the risks in adulthood for even higher blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.
Who Is At Risk?
Certain diseases, as well as some medications, can cause high blood pressure in children. Unfortunately, for a growing number of children and adolescents, poor lifestyle habits, lack of exercise, and obesity are the primary contributors. Obesity not only puts your child at risk for high blood pressure, but it also has a role to play in other health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease. Other risk factors include a family history of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol or triglycerides.
Can it Cause Problems Now?
Some children and adolescents have high blood pressure as a result of other illnesses. Although uncommon, blood pressure can reach dangerous levels in youth and cause heart failure, pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs) or hypertensive encephalopathy (brain blood flow abnormalities leading to brain swelling or decreased blood supply). High blood pressure detected at routine well visit screenings can lead to the diagnosis of other conditions: kidney disease, thyroid disease, adrenal abnormalities, and heart conditions such as coarctation (narrowing or tightening) of the aorta. Early detection of problems causing high blood pressure can enhance treatment and improve outcomes – sometimes preventing serious complications.
Prevention and Intervention
Lifestyle plays an important role in preventing and treating high blood pressure. A family-based approach is vital in all childhood diseases but plays a particular role in conditions that are significantly influenced by lifestyle behaviors. Families that encourage a healthy diet and physical activity can have a beneficial effect on blood pressure and heart disease, as well as preventing childhood obesity. Here is what you can do:
- See your pediatrician for regular well-visits. It is important for your child to see the doctor regularly. It’s the only way to know if there is a problem. Your doctor will measure your child’s blood pressure yearly beginning at age three. Normal blood pressure for a child is not the same as an adult. Your pediatrician will measure and evaluate your child’s blood pressure based on their gender, age, and height. Blood pressure will be measured more often if the child has other risk factors such as obesity, kidney disease, diabetes, or is taking medications known to increase blood pressure.
- Eat a Healthy Diet. The DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, poultry, nuts, lean red meats, and low-fat dairy. It also includes a limited intake of sugar and sweets along with lower sodium intake.
- Increase Physical Activity. Any type of exercise, whether it’s aerobic training, resistance training, or combined training appears to be beneficial for lowering blood pressure and keeping your weight under control. Aim for 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity at least 3 to 5 days per week. Children with high blood pressure may participate in competitive sports once they have been assessed by their doctor and their blood pressure is in a safe range.
- Drop Excess Weight. Children who are overweight usually have a higher blood pressure than those who are not. If your child is overweight, losing even 5 pounds can lower their blood pressure.
- Reduce Stress. Practice healthy coping techniques, such as muscle relaxation, deep breathing, or meditation. Getting regular physical activity and plenty of sleep can help, too.
- Medication. If a lifestyle modification program does not lower your child’s blood pressure, medicines may be prescribed by your pediatrician.
Subcommittee on Screening and Management of High Blood Pressure in Children, “Clinical Practice Guideline for Screening and Management of High Blood Pressure in Children and Adolescents” American Academy of Pediatrics, August 21, 2017
Kevin D. Hill MD, MSCI, Jennifer S. Li, MD, MHS, ”Childhood Hypertension: An Underappreciated Epidemic?” American Academy of Pediatrics November 22, 2016