High Blood Pressure in Kids: A Silent Killer?

If you think high blood pressure should be a concern only for adults, think again. It’s on the rise in kids and can set them up for adults diseases and a shorter life. And no parents wants that for their kids.

Although high blood pressure has many causes, what and how kids eat plays a key role. In a recent Scoop on Food post called Kids and Sodium: Should Parents Be Concerned?, I talked about why it’s important for kids’ sodium intake—linked with blood pressure—to be on parents’ radars, especially when so many kids consume far more sodium than recommended. Keeping sodium intake down, eating a balanced, nutrient-packed diet, and living an active lifestyle are also vital to support kids’ kidneys and overall health.

A new Harvard study published in Hypertension further highlights why it’s important to pay attention to kids’ sodium intakes and blood pressure levels. The study found that the risk for high blood pressure among children and adolescents rose 27% over a 13 year period. In the study, researchers analyzed data from 8 to 17 year-old children—3,248 followed between 1988 and 1994, and 8,388 followed between 1999 and 2008. They found the prevalence of elevated blood pressure among boys increased from 15.8% in 1988 to 1994 to 19.2% in 1999 to 2008. Among girls, the prevalence of elevated blood pressure increased from 8.2% to 12.6% between the two time periods. The researchers found that each of three variables—body mass index, waist circumference, and sodium intake—were independently linked with prevalence of elevated blood pressure among children.

According to Janet Bond Brill, PhD, RD, author of Blood Pressure Down, “Just as with adults, high blood pressure—also known as ‘the silent killer’—contributes to more excess deaths in men and women than any other preventable factor.” Even though parents may not be able to imagine that their children could get heart attacks or strokes, Bond Brill says these are very real side effects of high blood pressure. “Helping our kids eat more healthfully and regularly exercise will help them lose weight and lower their blood pressure, and reduce the “twin epidemic” of type 2 diabetes, to improve their health now and help them become healthier adults,” she adds.

Because being overweight and consuming excess sodium are the primary causes of high blood pressure, Bond Brill suggests four tips to help parents help their kids resolve these two powerful contributing factors:

Cut the salt. Because about eighty percent of the sodium in the diet comes from processed and restaurant foods, Bond Brill suggests cooking whole foods more and eating out less. She says, “Replace processed foods with homemade meals consisting of whole foods, fresh fruits, vegetables, and less processed convenience foods.” She also suggests learning how to read labels and comparison shop for processed foods. “Doing this with your kids and involving them in the process of getting food on the table can help you all get healthier and bond in the process,” says Bond Brill. Although she recommends a cap of less 2,000 milligrams a day of sodium, Bond Brill says 1,500 milligrams of sodium daily is ideal.

Curb calories. According to Bond Brill, “The easiest way to cut calories is to replace “liquid calories” such as soda, sweetened iced teas, and sports drinks with water.” Because the greatest contributors to calorie intake in children are (in descending order) French fries, potato chips, sugar-sweetened drinks, red and processed meats, other forms of potatoes, sweets and desserts, refined grains, other fried foods, 100% fruit juice and butter, she also suggests limiting these foods and replacing them with more nutritious alternatives to curb calorie intake and reduce unhealthy weight gain and elevated blood pressure.

Be active. Bond Brill suggests having kids wear their sneakers every day with the goal of 60 minutes of daily activity. Taking after-dinner walks, playing sports, or taking bike rides or doing other activities that require walking or running around over the weekend can also help families improve their health while enjoying quality time together.

Cut screen time. Because studies suggest an association between screen time and excess body weight—linked with higher blood pressure—Bond Brill suggests limiting screen time and keeping TVs out of kids’ bedrooms.

For more information about blood pressure and children, check out High Blood Pressure and Children: What Parents Need to Know, and Blood Pressure Tables for Children and Adolescents.
Image of female doctor measuring blood pressure of a child patient via Shutterstock.

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  1. [...] The high volume of salt-laden snack foods consumed by American children is the culprit cited in an article published in the journal Hypertension for a marked rise in cases of high blood pressure among US kids and teens.  The percentage of kids between ages 8 and 17 with high blood pressure–a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, and strokes–has increased 27 percent over the past 13 years, according to researchers.  More from NBC News: The new research, published Monday in the journal Hypertension, positively links rising blood pressure to increasing body mass index, especially waist circumference, and sodium intake. In short, far too many American children are too fat and eating too many salty snacks. [...]

  2. [...] High Blood Pressure in Kids: A Silent Killer? [...]

  3. [...] pressure. And for children, there’s moderate evidence that as sodium intake decreases, so does blood pressure. Helping children keep blood pressure in a normal range may also reduce the risk of cardiovascular [...]