The number of children worldwide living in heart attack territory has gradually risen over the past two decades, hand in hand with the obesity epidemic.
University of Oxford researchers found that the prevalence of hypertension – high blood pressure readings that indicate an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, coronary heart disease, heart failure and kidney failure – has significantly lifted in children as young as six.
The researchers – in a systematic review and meta-analysis of 47 studies – found that hypertension increased at a relative rate of 75 per cent to 79 per cent from 2000 to 2015, with the increase directly tied to body mass index.
Even little kids … not so little
In 2015, the prevalence of childhood hypertension ranged from 4.32 per cent among children aged six to 3.28 per cent among those aged 19 years.
It peaked at nearly eight per cent among those aged 14 years.
Without an effective global intervention, the situation is bound to get worse.
Ten per cent of all children – one in 10 – have pre-hypertension, blood pressure readings on the verge of entering the danger zone.
The findings, according to the authors, suggest “childhood hypertension is becoming more common in the general paediatric population, representing a considerable public health challenge worldwide.”
In June, the European Society of Cardiology published this alarming finding: Overweight four-year-olds have a doubled risk of high blood pressure by age six.
According to the World Health Organisation, childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century.
The problem is global and the prevalence has increased at an alarming rate. In 2016, more than 41 million children under the age of five were overweight.
Consequences as varied as they are disturbing
A 2010 study from the University of Rochester Medical Centre found that children who have hypertension are “much more likely to have learning disabilities than children with normal blood pressure”.
When variables such as socioeconomic levels were evened out, children with hypertension were four times more likely to have cognitive problems.
A small 2006 study from the University of Texas found that 60 per cent of children with high blood pressure were at risk for sleep breathing disorders.
In the study, six out 10 hypertensive participants had a condition called sleep disordered breathing – which is characterised by short periods of upper airway obstructions that are complete (apnea) or partial (hypopnea), or a longer period of insufficient air movement (obstructive hypoventilation).
Sleep disordered breathing can result in daytime sleepiness, limited attention span, poor school performance, hyperactivity, poor growth and increased blood pressure in the lungs, according to the lead author of the study – Dr Alisa A. Acosta, then a fellow in paediatric kidney disease and hypertension at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston.
(Dr Acosta’s findings weren’t journal published but presented at a major American Heart Association conference.)
Other factors driving childhood hypertension
While obesity appears to be the main driver of hypertension in children, a clutch of studies published in recent months identified various environmental and other modern-life factors contributing to the trend.
A University of California study found hypertension in children exposed to flower pesticides.
Researchers from the Boston Medical Centre found that Vitamin D deficiency from birth to early childhood was associated with a 60 per cent increased risk of elevated systolic blood pressure during childhood and adolescence – that is, between the ages of six and 18.
Systolic refers to the first or top number in a blood pressure reading. It indicates how much pressure your blood is exerting against your artery walls when your heart beats.
As the authors note, “High systolic blood pressure readings increase the risk of cardiovascular disease even when diastolic blood pressure, the second number in a blood pressure reading, is controlled.”
A Columbia University study found that exposure to bisphenol-A concentrations (a chemical found in various consumer plastics) and perfluorooctanoate concentrations (a chemical found in cosmetics, household cleaners or clothing) were associated with hypertension in children.
Children who had been exposed to copper during childhood also had a higher blood pressure.