How High Blood Pressure May Hurt Children’s Brains

Catherine Saint Louis, New York Times, September 29, 2016

Increasing numbers of children have high blood pressure, largely as a consequence of their obesity. A growing body of evidence suggests that high blood pressure may impair children’s cognitive skills, reducing their ability to remember, pay attention and organize facts.

In the most comprehensive study to date, published on Thursday in The Journal of Pediatrics, 75 children ages 10 to 18 with untreated high blood pressure performed worse on several tests of cognitive function, compared with 75 peers who had normal blood pressure.

The differences were subtle, and the new research does not prove that high blood pressure diminishes cognitive skills in children. Still, the findings set off alarm bells among some experts.

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Dr. Marc B. Lande, a professor of pediatric nephrology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and his colleagues had children tested at four sites in three states, matching those with and without high blood pressure by age, maternal education, race, obesity levels and other factors.

The researchers excluded children with learning disabilities and sleep problems, which can affect cognitive skills. Children with elevated blood pressure performed worse than their peers on tests of memory, processing speed and verbal skills, the researchers found. But all the scores were still in the normal range.

Because of increased obesity, elevated blood pressure, also called hypertension, is no longer rare in children, though it is underdiagnosed. In a recent survey, about 3.5 percent of 14,187 children ages 3 to 18 had hypertension.

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Children may be uniquely susceptible to cognitive deficits, Dr. Kershaw said. “One of my concerns is, if you have high blood pressure and you’re 10 to 18 years old, it may impact your cognitive function more than if you’re 40 or 50,” he said.

The areas of the brain that control executive function mature until a person’s early 20s. So the idea is that perhaps hypertension could hinder that function, Dr. Kershaw said.

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