Obesity in children is now considered a major public health problem, and the concern is well placed, says Rebecca Din-Dzietham, MD, PhD, MPH, assistant professor in the social epidemiology research division of the department of community health and preventive medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. She tells WebMD that new research confirms that just as obesity is a risk factor for high blood pressure in adults; it is also behind dangerous increases in blood pressure in children. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
Din-Dzietham presented the study results at the American Heart Association's 44th Annual Conference on Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention.
The researchers looked at data on black and white children taken at several points from the early '70s to the mid-'90s. From 1971 to 1980, there was little change in weight and blood pressure among children, she says. But after that, "children started gaining weight and it just continued to climb." By the time the '90s rolled around, it was clear that obesity was increasing in America's children but blood pressure was not yet affected.
But that changed with the latest data, which were collected from 1999 to 2000.
"When we compared the results of the 1988 survey to the data collected in 1999, there was a sharp and significant increase in blood pressure," she explains.
Blood Pressure Rising in Kids
In all categories -- normal weight, overweight, and obese -- blood pressure was higher, but in the overweight children blood pressure climbed an average of 4.2% compared with a 2.6% increase among normal-weight children.
Daniel Jones MD, dean of the school of medicine at the University of Mississippi in Jackson, tells WebMD that the study results carry a chilling message. "It means that this is not just something that we suspect will happen, this is real. The obesity epidemic is real and the health consequences are real." Jones was not involved in the study.
Another study will be released later this year, says Din-Dzietham, and she predicts "that we will see blood pressures even higher in that study." The message for the nation, she says, is that "obesity drives these changes. We need to seriously address obesity in children now before the onset of hypertension."
Jones, who is a spokesman for the American Heart Association, says that in most cases children with high blood pressure can be treated with lifestyle changes that include exercise and a diet that restricts calories while increasing the intake of fruits and vegetables. But children who don't respond to lifestyle changes are treated with the high blood pressure medications that we use in adults.