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Hypertension: Children Can Have It, Too

Hypertension, or high blood pressure, affects almost one in three adults in the United States. But this serious health condition isn't limited to those ages 18 and older.

The number of children and adolescents with high blood pressure is increasing after a long period of declining numbers. And that rise can be at least partly blamed on the increasing number of overweight and obese children.

High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and is the primary risk factor for stroke. Children with hypertension have a higher risk for high blood pressure as adults. High blood pressure in childhood is also correlated with early development of atherosclerosis in adulthood.

Systolic pressure is the first number in a blood pressure reading and corresponds to the pressure in arteries when the heart contracts. Diastolic pressure is the second number in a blood pressure reading and corresponds to the pressure in the arteries between heart beats, when the heart relaxes.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) recommends that children older than three years of age have their blood pressure measured each time they see their health care provider for routine checkups. Normal blood pressure in children depends on their gender, age and height.

A child with a blood pressure at or greater than the 95th percentile is considered to have hypertension. A child with a blood pressure between the 90th and 95th percentile is considered to have prehypertension, a condition that makes it likely to develop high blood pressure. Teens with a blood pressure of 120/80 or greater are considered to have prehypertension.

Treatment

A child with high blood pressure usually is encouraged to make lifestyle changes. The main change encouraged in children to control blood pressure is losing weight, the NHLBI says. Other changes may include increased exercise and improved diet. A child also may be given prescription medication to help control blood pressure.

Regular exercise will help control weight and may keep blood pressure in check, the NHLBI says. Regular exercise means 30 to 60 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days. Sedentary activities should be limited to less than two hours a day.

A healthier diet for a child with prehypertension or high blood pressure means including fresh vegetables and fruits, additional fiber and nonfat dairy products each day, as well as limiting salt and sodium. The daily recommended sodium intake for children ranges from less than 1,500 milligrams (mg) to less than 2,300 mg, depending on age.