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High blood pressure, obesity: What will happen to our children?

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​If you c​are about kids, you should be worried about the health of many American children. 

Kids runningIt’s a special concern for Robert Haws, M.D., a pediatric nephrologist who travels to see patients throughout the Marshfield Clinic system.

He specializes in diseases of the kidney and high blood pressure, a problem increasingly occurring in even very young children. His colleague, Afshan Chaudhry, M.D., a pediatric endocrinologist, sees a growing trend for overweight (excess body weight) or obese (excess of fat) children. 

Together, these observations are deeply concerning because they have dangerous short-term and long-term health implications.

“We are witnessing a substantial increase in the incidence of hypertension, or high blood pressure, in children. This is an extremely serious global development,” Dr. Haws said. 

“When I started practicing medicine 19 years ago, about 1 percent of children had persistent hypertension, and these cases were usually associated with diseases of the kidneys or the heart. Now, 5 to 6 percent of children have hypertension, as do an alarming 20 percent of children who are obese.”

Over time, high blood pressure puts an individual at risk for life-shortening complications such as stroke, heart attack and kidney damage. Short-term, hypertension in children reduces their ability to concentrate in school.

Dr. Chaudhry points to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that show:

  • The prevalence of obesity among school-age children, ages 6 to 11, has grown from 6.5 percent in 1976 to 19.6 percent in 2008. 
  • The prevalence of obesity among adolescents (12 to 19) climbed from 5.0 percent in 1976 to 18.1 percent in 2008.

“We are finding obesity at much younger ages, often under the age of 5,” she said. “This has dire implications for children’s health, not only in childhood but also in adulthood.” 

Short-term, obesity can affect the bones and joints, which in young children are not developed to support extra weight. This can cause problems with such normal activities as walking and running. Obesity can also cause sleep apnea because of excess soft tissue in the airway. This in turn can lead to tiredness during the day and poor school performance.

“It’s not unusual now for pediatricians to find children with not only high blood pressure, but also high levels of cholesterol in their blood and pre-diabetes caused by high blood sugar levels,” Dr. Chaudhry noted. “These alarming conditions used to be found only in adults, but no longer. Each of them increases the child’s risk for a number of dangerous and even deadly conditions such as heart problems.” 

She and the Pediatric Endocrinology staff take a comprehensive approach with patients, often scheduling visits for several hours so the child and parents can meet with a child psychologist and dietitian, in addition to Dr. Chaudhry. 

Heredity, eating habits, behavioral habits, lifestyle or hormonal problems may be factors that the team addresses. Exploring behavior change, developing a plan for physical activity and learning more about healthy food choices greatly enhance a child’s likelihood of successfully managing weight.

Dr. Haws worries about what will happen to these children in the next few decades. “Will they die or be crippled by strokes, kidney failure and heart attacks? We used to think these things only happened to people who were in their 60s and 70s, but our fear is these will become very common in young adults,” Dr. Haws said.

Doctors can tie most of these problems to sedentary lifestyles and high-fat diets, which children often learn from their parents. That means parents can take positive steps to turn this situation around. Lead by example following the tips above.

Doctors note that some parents do not even realize their children are overweight or obese, or they may be in denial. But it’s critical that parents take a close look at their children and realize what’s at stake with high blood pressure and obesity.

Make sure your children have regular well-child visits, and have their blood pressure and weight measured at each visit. And if your child is a Marshfield Clinic patient, keep up on their test numbers by signing up for My Marshfield Clinic​

How you can help

  • Start by taking your children for walks and encouraging them to run around, ride a bike, play basketball or do other activities to get their hearts beating a little faster. Avoid activities that embarrass an overweight child.
  • Put limits on TV and video game time, and explain why you’re doing so. 
  • Rediscover the true delights of fresh fruits and vegetables. Get in the habit of eating an orange or a banana instead of a candy bar or bag of chips.
  • Drink water instead of sodas filled with caffeine, sugar and sodium. 
  • Take a few extra minutes to prepare a home-cooked meal instead of the prepackaged varieties, and savor the difference.
  • Be supportive and accepting, especially for an overweight child, and make sure the child feels loved.
  • Consult with your child’s physician.