Children’s doctors see the same conditions year after year, and when something changes, they notice. So it was with Isabel Roberti, M.D., a pediatric nephrologist (kidney specialist) at Saint Barnabas Medical Center. She was startled, not long ago, by a sharp rise in children referred to her with a usually adult problem: high blood pressure, or hypertension.
Traditionally, she says, if hypertension is diagnosed in children it’s because it accompanies an illness that has kidney problems as a consequence. “But these referrals were not from disease,” Dr. Roberti explains. Hypertension, she recalled, is also linked to sodium consumption. “These kids were obese, and their problem came from eating a ton of salty foods.”
She went back to check her records and found that 65 percent of her new hypertension patients fell into this category in which diet was the culprit. “Before, we didn’t realize the size of the problem,” she says. She even presented her findings at a nephrology meeting. “High blood pressure in kids is much more prevalent now, and it’s because of salt-heavy diets,” she says, adding that children’s bodies process sodium no differently than those of adults—“it’s just that they’re getting too much of it.”
Hypertension can be dangerous in children just as it is in adults. “We noticed that about 16 percent of these kids in our patient population had abnormalities of the heart, and about 10 percent had early-stage kidney disease,” she says. “The latter group seemed to be at high risk to develop problems with kidney function in 20 to 30 years.”
Many physicians aren’t as aware of the problem as they should be, says the doctor. “When they find a child with high blood pressure, they often think it’s due to ‘white coat syndrome’—anxiety over seeing a doctor,” she says. “But we do monitoring over 24 hours to determine if that’s the reason for a high reading or if the pressure is truly elevated.”
If necessary, medications can be administered to reduce blood pressure, says Dr. Roberti. But if the problem is detected early, there’s a straightforward treatment: regular exercise and a diet with much less sodium. “I tell my patients’ families, ‘Try cooking instead of opening cans.’”