High blood pressure – sometimes referred to as “the silent killer” because it can do serious heart and brain damage before symptoms appear – is common in adults.
But what about children?
Among U.S. children and adolescents, up to five percent have high blood pressure – also known as hypertension – and as many as 18 percent have elevated blood pressure, according to a scientific statement from the American Heart Association published recently in its journal Hypertension.
Until recently, medical experts weren’t focused on hypertension as a childhood issue, says Dr. Bonita Falkner, writing committee chair for the statement. In fact, they weren’t even sure how to diagnose it in children and didn’t look for it unless the child had an underlying condition – such as kidney disease – that might cause blood pressure levels to climb.
“It was not common practice to measure blood pressure in children with no symptoms, so it took a while to figure out what was normal or not,” according to Falkner, professor emeritus of medicine and pediatrics at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.
Falkner says concerns about childhood hypertension have increased as childhood obesity levels in the U.S. have reached alarming levels. Being overweight and not getting enough physical activity are major risk factors for hypertension, along with poor diet.
“A lot of the same things that cause hypertension in adults can cause it in children,” according to Dr. Andrew Tran, director of preventive cardiology at the Heart Center at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
Over the past three decades, childhood obesity in the U.S. has doubled, up to nearly 20 percent based on the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Physical activity levels have remained well below federal guidelines: Only about one-fifth of kids ages six to 17 get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity each day, with activity levels dropping as children age. And according to the CDC, younger children in the U.S. aren’t meeting federal guidelines for eating fruits and vegetables, while regularly consuming sugary beverages.
Conditions such as heart defects and kidney disease also can cause blood pressure to rise in children.