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Kids with hidden high blood pressure

A recent report from the University of Michigan Health System suggests high blood pressure may be a rising health concern for kids and teens – yet it’s often missed.

High blood pressure sounds like a problem that pops up late in middle age – coinciding with a growing collection of elastic-waist pants in the closet, walking shoes that are gathering dust and perhaps an uptick in stress as you worry about your parents, your kids, your job and more! But a recent report from the University of Michigan Health System suggests high blood pressure may be a rising health concern for kids and teens – yet it's often missed.

One reason for the slip-up is that doctors don't take kids' blood pressure at every visit, and only write it down about 26 percent of the time. Another reason is that a healthy blood pressure reading for a child or teen varies with his or her age, sex and height. "When it comes to young people's blood pressure, we can't use a flat number value for what's normal or abnormal like we do in adults. They may have a reading of 80/40, which sounds good, but that may actually be high," lead author Margaret Riley, M.D., told a Detroit TV station.

You can see blood pressure tables for kids and teens here, on the website of The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute's website.

The most important reason to know whether your child's blood pressure is healthy is that high blood pressure's extra force can do damage early. "High blood pressure may start causing problems even in childhood, including changes to the structure of the heart that damage blood vessels, and can also be associated with high cholesterol, diabetes and other health issues," Riley said. The good news is that healthy eating and regular activity are the usual treatments – drugs are used way less often in kids and teens than in adults.

But there's another reason to pay attention to your child's blood pressure: It may reflect your own. It turns out, another recent study says, that when a child has high blood pressure or cholesterol his or her parents are often at higher risk for diabetes and heart disease, too. The connection reflects the genes and lifestyle habits that you both share.

Here's how to stay on top of your child's blood pressure:

  1. Be sure the doctor measures and writes down your child's blood pressure at every visit started at age 3. The doctor's office should have cuffs of various sizes to fit kids of various sizes; the wrong size can result in a reading that's too low or too high.

  2. Ask if the number is in a healthy range. Your doctor should consult a blood pressure table – on paper, on computer or on her smart phone – to tell.

  3. If your child's blood pressure seems too high or too low, ask what happens next. One reading won't lead to a diagnosis. Doctors usually check three times, at separate visits. If high blood pressure is diagnosed, more medical tests will be conducted to look for a cause. While a growing number of kids have higher-than-healthy blood pressure numbers due to obesity, other factors include heart defects, kidney disease and hormonal disorders.