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Keeping Kids’ Blood Pressure and Cholesterol in Check

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It’s likely you’ve talked with your doctor about your heart health and where your blood pressure and cholesterol stand. But have you talked with your child’s pediatrician about theirs? “We usually think of hypertension (high blood pressure) and high cholesterol as problems that affect adults, but we tend to forget that these problems can start early in life,” explains Jessica Haley, M.D., pediatric cardiologist and director of the Division of Cardiology’s Home Monitoring Program at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego and assistant clinical professor of pediatrics at University of California School of Medicine. “Hypertension is found in approximately 3.5 percent of kids and teens; abnormal cholesterol levels are found in approximately 20 percent. Both of these issues are more common among kids who are overweight or obese.”

High blood pressure or cholesterol levels in youth are typically the result of underlying health issues, such as kidney disease; environmental factors, such as unhealthy diet or weight and insufficient exercise; or genetics. “Some kids have an increased risk of developing these problems simply because it runs in their family,” Dr. Haley says. Since these potentially harmful conditions can stem from so many — or even multiple — areas of health, Dr. Haley emphasizes the importance of partnering with your child’s pediatrician to monitor from a young age. Early intervention is critical to providing proper treatment, in turn reducing the likelihood of conditions worsening and of progression to cardiovascular disease, stroke, heart attack, kidney disease or heart failure in adulthood. “Studies have found that kids that have high blood pressure are more likely to continue to have it as adults. We are now finding that kids with hypertension or abnormal cholesterol are developing subtle changes in their bodies, including thickening of the heart muscle and of the arteries, which contributes to the early development of cardiovascular disease,” continues Dr. Haley.

Dr. Haley notes that pediatricians should start monitoring kids’ blood pressure during routine visits starting at 3 years old. “If the blood pressure is elevated, your doctor may perform additional testing to determine the cause,” she explains. “If your child’s blood pressure is found to be elevated on multiple occasions, then your doctor will refer you to a specialist for further evaluation.”  Cholesterol testing comes into play a bit later in childhood, between 9 and 11. “This is a national pediatric guideline that was made to ensure proper detection of all kids with abnormal cholesterol levels so that appropriate interventions can be made. Some children will need cholesterol screening at an earlier age, particularly if they have other health problems or if there is a strong family history of high cholesterol or early heart disease,” Dr. Haley adds.

Along with ensuring kids are being screened at regular well-child visit, Dr. Haley says parents can help prevent high blood pressure or cholesterol or reduce levels (in collaboration with their child’s pediatrician and appropriate therapies) in the following ways:

  • Enforce a heart-healthy diet, which includes lots of fruits and veggies and limits fried foods, sugary beverages and processed foods.
  • Discuss the risk of smoking with kids, and avoid smoking around children. First- and secondhand smoke exposure is a key contributor to cardiovascular illness.
  • Keep kids active, and aim for at least an hour of moderate physical activity each day for kids 5 and up. Limiting screen time can also help avoid a sedentary lifestyle.

Hypertension and high cholesterol in kids can’t always be avoided, but they can always be managed with timely detection and treatment and a well-balanced lifestyle. Here’s to healthy hearts!