June 18, 2012 -- The number of young people sent to the hospital for high blood pressure rose steeply during a recent 10-year period, according to a new study published online in the journal Hypertension.
Hospital stays for Americans ages 18 and under due to high blood pressure nearly doubled from 12,661 in 1997 to 24,602 in 2006. The study shows that high blood pressure in young people comes with a high cost for the nation today and is setting the stage for serious health problems in the future, experts tell WebMD.
A Costly Problem Linked to Obesity
A central discovery in the study goes beyond the obvious health cost to the children and highlights the actual cost of treating high blood pressure in young people, says researcher Cheryl Tran, MD, of the University of Michigan. During this time period, these hospital stays cost $3.1 billion. The average charges for treating these young people in the hospital rose by 50%.
One of the key reasons given by researchers for this trend: obesity. According to the CDC, roughly 17% of kids and teens are now obese. Their numbers have grown steeply in recent decades. Children who are obese are more likely to have high blood pressure, according to the CDC.
In their study, the researchers point out that high blood pressure in kids is growing more common. It now affects up to 3% of American children. When the researchers looked at the hospital records of the young people, only 9.3% of the claims with high blood pressure also made a reference to obesity. But it's possible that more of the kids and teens were obese, but their records didn't make note of it, Tran says. The database they used for the study didn't contain information on the young people's body mass indexes.
Signs of Health Problems to Come
In an editorial published along with the study, Joshua Samuels, MD, of the University of Texas, writes that the "significant increases in blood pressure are likely riding the wave of pediatric obesity that is spreading across America." High blood pressure affects more kids than other problems that get more attention, such as autism or epilepsy, he writes.
Even in kids, high blood pressure can cause damage, Samuels writes, including changes in the heart. And high blood pressure often follows children into their adult years, putting them at risk of heart disease and stroke.
For Suzanne Steinbaum, DO, the study emphasizes the perils of America's weight issues. "I actually got into an argument with a cabdriver this morning" about the proposed plan to limit sodas in New York City, says Steinbaum, a preventive cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.
"This could be a huge wake-up call. When I read an article like this, I feel like standing on the buildings in New York City and screaming. Children are getting sicker and sicker as they're getting more obese. There's going to be a huge increase in heart disease and health care costs because of this," she tells WebMD.
"Children who have hypertension usually become adults with hypertension. And children who are obese usually become obese adults, with all the chronic conditions associated with that."
What's a Parent to Do?
Parents can help keep their children from developing blood-pressure-related problems by working with their doctor. It's especially important for doctors to check obese children for high blood pressure during their checkups, Steinbaum says.
If a child does have high blood pressure, this is a good time for the entire family to start making healthy lifestyle changes, she says, given that children of parents who are obese are much more likely to become obese themselves.
Diet and exercise changes can help address high blood pressure in children, Tran says. Other treatments for high blood pressure, if needed, can help keep these kids from going on to develop complications from it, she says.