It's not something most parents think about when it comes to their children's health — high blood pressure (or hypertension) seems like a condition that affects only adults. Although it is far more common among grownups, high blood pressure is on the rise among kids as the childhood obesity epidemic grows. And, according to a new study, hypertension is a serious problem that's often undiagnosed in kids.
Looking at the blood pressure levels of more than 14,000 children and teens (from ages 3 to 18), researchers discovered that nearly three quarters of the 500-plus kids who had hypertension hadn't been diagnosed with high blood pressure in any of their three previous routine checkups.
Kids with high blood pressure often don't have any symptoms at all, so the condition can be tough to catch. Diagnosing hypertension is also "complicated because normal and abnormal blood pressure values vary with age, sex, and height, and are therefore difficult to remember," says the study.
That's why it's crucial for doctors — and parents — to keep track of kids' blood pressure levels as they grow and address any abnormalities.
About Blood Pressure
When a child has high blood pressure, the heart and arteries have a much heavier workload — the heart has to pump harder and the arteries are under greater strain as they carry blood.
Although severe hypertension is rare in kids, even mild to moderate hypertension can cause damage to the heart, kidneys, brain, and eyes over time. If it goes untreated, high blood pressure can put kids at a higher risk for the later development of:
- heart attack
- kidney failure
- vision loss
- atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and blood circulation problems
So how, exactly, do kids get high blood pressure in the first place? Although hypertension can be caused by other health problems, tots and teens with high blood pressure often have a family history of the condition and tend to lead unhealthy lifestyles, with a bad diet, too much weight and/or stress, and not enough exercise.
What This Means to You
The only reliable way to find out if your child's blood pressure is high is to have it checked regularly, especially if your child is obese or if hypertension runs in your family. Doctors usually start measuring blood pressure during routine checkups around age 3.
If your child's blood pressure isn't what it should be, the treatment will depend on just how high it is and what's causing the increase. Some medications and alcohol or drug abuse could spur a spike. And if the doctor thinks an underlying illness is the culprit, treating that illness may do the trick.
But when kids have mild to moderate hypertension — and there's no underlying illness or other probable cause — doctors may suggest an initial game plan that includes:
- weight loss
- more fruits and vegetables
- less salt
- more exercise and participation in organized sports (although kids with severe hypertension need a doctor's OK before any strenuous activities)
To stay on top of your child's blood pressure, consider keeping a log or medical journal of blood pressure levels taken at each checkup (along with height, weight, and age). And be sure to ask the doctor what your child's blood pressure is now and how it compares to past levels.
Being proactive can help curb any potential problems down the road. With early diagnosis and treatment, kids with high blood pressure can lead active, normal lives.
Reviewed by: Steven Dowshen, MD
Date reviewed: August 2007
Source: "Underdiagnosis of Hypertension in Children and Adolescents," Journal of the American Medical Association, Aug. 22–29, 2007.