Kids can have high blood pressure, too

February 27, 2018
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  • High blood pressure is a condition that affects children as well as adults
  • The good news: For most kids, high blood pressure can be brought down relatively quickly 

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, isn’t just an adult disease. It occurs in 2 to 5 percent of all pediatric patients, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). But it often goes unrecognized.

Last summer the Academy updated its guidelines for the diagnosis and treatment of hypertension in children. The update is intended to help health care providers more effectively identify elevated blood pressure in children. The revised guidelines include a new set of tables to classify high blood pressure. The AAP says the disease, which often occurs without symptoms, is overlooked by physicians up to 75 percent of the time.

“Parents are often surprised to hear that kids can have high blood pressure,” says Dr. Elizabeth Meade, Chief of Pediatrics at Swedish who tweets as @EMeadeMD. Dr. Meade says providers recommend screening children for the disease and, if they show high readings for three straight preventive care visits, to begin treating them.

Hypertension, which often goes unnoticed because it is asymptomatic, can lead to serious problems, including organ damage or stroke. And a person is more likely to live a longer life if the disease is detected and treated early.  

Lifestyle changes lower blood pressure

For a small subset of kids, high blood pressure may point to an underlying medical problem that requires specialized treatment or medication or specialized treatment. But for most kids, the elevated readings suggest they aren’t exercising enough, or aren’t eating a healthy diet. Getting kids moving and eating better “is the first line of treatment” for pediatric hypertension, says Dr. Meade.

“The longer we’re practicing,” she says, “the more we’re finding that health conditions early in life can severely impact quality of life later.”

Guidelines for children’s exercise and diet

The good news, says Dr. Meade, is that kids generally are quite resilient. They can bounce back from high blood pressure by making healthy changes.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends children and adolescents have 60 minutes of exercise a day. Most of that time should be aerobic exercise, or activities that increase the heart rate and cause a person to breathe harder, the agency advises. 

Not only does physical activity promote healthy blood pressure levels, but it builds healthy bones and muscles and reduces anxiety while improving concentration, according to the CDC.

Government guidelines for healthy eating, described at Choosemyplate.gov, include ensuring that children eat a balanced diet that includes fruit, vegetables, grains, dairy and protein. Swedish dietitian Leslie Lee explains a healthy diet should rely on whole foods, or as she calls them “real food” as opposed to heavily processed foods. Kids’ favorites like chips, cookies, and cereals are frequently high in sugar, which is associated with high blood pressure when eaten excessively over time.

Adds Dr. Meade: “Limiting processed foods is probably the most important thing you can do.” Processed foods, such as pre-made and ready-to-eat meals, tend to contain a lot of sodium, which contributes to elevated blood pressure, she says.

The message is getting through

Because kids, especially younger kids, tend to live in the moment, Dr. Meade says providers are working to convey to parents the importance of healthy eating and exercise for their children. And, she says, “most parents take it very seriously.”

You can arrange your child’s preventive care visit and blood pressure screening at any of our 20+ Swedish pediatric primary care locations.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
Topics: Kids, Services, Wellness