Why we’re the world’s most uptight people
HIGH blood pressure in children is a growing problem in South Africa and affects one in four schoolchildren, new research has found.
And South Africans older than 50 years have the highest rate of hypertension in the world, at almost four in five adults, a recent World Health Organisation study found.
The Birth to Twenty (Bt20) study among children is the first in South Africa to report that elevated blood pressure continues from early childhood into late adolescence. A third of children with high blood pressure at five and eight years old still had hypertension when they turned 18.
Children at risk should be screened early to prevent high blood pressure in adulthood, Juliana Kagura and her coauthors conclude.
They analysed data collected from 3 273 predominantly black children (78%) in Soweto and Johannesburg from 1990 to 2010 for the Bt20 study, based at the Wits Developmental Pathways for Health Research Unit.
“We see a lot of hypertension, strokes and heart attacks in midlife South Africans. As much as family history is important, the roots may be in childhood,” Kagura said about the results published in BMC Pediatrics.
Children born with a lower birth weight usually have “catch-up growth” and excess weight gain can stress their system. Being overweight or obese nearly triples the risk of becoming hypertensive.
“As much as we want babies to be chubby, if they are overweight in the first two years this can be a risk later on,” said Kagura.
South Africa’s shift to refined foods and a high salt intake contribute to high blood pressure and rising obesity.
But being overweight and inactive are not the only causes and environmental stress is likely to be an aggravating factor for children. Kagura speculated: “Living in a stressful environment with crime impacts on the psycho-social stress of children who may be afraid to go outside and play. As they get older they could start smoking and drinking and this could be linked to an unsafe environment.”
More children in South Africa are overweight, smoke and use alcohol now than before.
Dr Essack Mitha, head of the Newtown Clinical Research Centre, studied elevated blood pressure among 300 rural and urban children aged seven to 13 years old and found that elevated blood pressure was common.
“This has serious implications for the health of these children as they approach adulthood,” said Dr Mitha.
“Fast food and a sedentary lifestyle have contributed to an increase in this condition,” he said, recommending that schools consider basic medical checkups for all pupils.
Hypertension was uncommon in Africa in the past but this had changed, said Alta Schutte, director of the Medical Research Council unit for hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
Prof Schutte, who is also president of the Southern African Hypertension Society, said: “Worldwide it is well known that high blood pressure is more common in black populations.”
Parents who know their family has a risk for hypertension should get their children’s blood pressure measured from age 10 and onwards annually.