By Amir Khan
Childhood obesity can lead to a host of health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and hypertension, and the risk may be worse than previously thought, according to preliminary new research being presented at the American Heart Association High Blood Pressure Research Scientific Sessions meeting. Researchers found that obese children are at a four-time higher risk of developing high blood pressure in adulthood compared to non-obese children – a finding that further underscores the danger of the growing epidemic of childhood obesity.
Researchers tracked 1,117 healthy adolescents for 27 years, beginning in 1986, and found that 16 percent were overweight, with another 16 percent obese. As adults, 26 percent of the obese children developed high blood pressure, compared to 14 percent of overweight children and 6 percent of normal weight children.
“It is important that pediatricians counsel patients on the risk of high blood pressure associated with overweight and obesity, and stress that a healthy diet, including reducing salt intake and exercise, may help reduce this risk,” study author Sara Watson, M.D., a pediatric endocrinology fellow at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University in Indianapolis, said in a statement. “Interventions to prevent and treat obesity will play an important role in decreasing the significant burden of high blood pressure in adulthood.”
Approximately one in three children and teens in the United States are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which means millions of people will be facing high blood pressure as they get older. However, researchers from the Institute of the Georgia Prevention Center at Georgia Regents University may have found a way to predict who will develop it, according to new research also presented at the AHA meeting.
The researchers, led by Gregory Harshfield, Ph.D., director of the institute, conducted a urine test on 19 children between the ages of 10 and 19, and found that of the eight who did not excrete sodium in their urine, seven went on to develop high blood pressure. And while the researchers acknowledge the sample size was miniscule, the findings could help develop a simple test to determine who is at risk for hypertension.
“Hypertension is no longer an adult disease,” Dr. Harshfield said in a statement. “The results of this test could also provide useful information that could help pediatricians better manage and treat hypertension in their patients.”
Joshua Samuels, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics in the division of pediatric nephrology and hypertension at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, said that studies such as these will become increasingly important as the childhood obesity epidemic continues.
“Childhood obesity is the largest single risk factor for hypertension in childhood,” Dr. Samuels said. “Most kids who have high blood pressure have the same kind as adults, which carries the same kinds of risk factors.”
Hypertension can lead to blindness, heart disease, kidney damage, and other deadly conditions. And while doctors used to think that kids with high blood pressure didn’t experience these conditions, they now know that’s not the case, Samuels said.
“The more we look at it, the more we see that the disease is the same as in adults,” he said. “Many of them are already showing signs of heart muscle thickening, which is a precursor to heart disease.”
The epidemic is only getting worse, Samuels said, and as children begin to experience the trend, it could overburden the health care industry.
“Everybody sees the trend,” he said, “and we’re all worried about how we’re going to pay for all these complications.”
But for many parents, it will be a matter of paying for a funeral, not medication, Samuels added.
“Unless something is done, we may be looking at the situation where we’re raising the first generation of kids that won’t outlive their parents,” he said.