The woes of adulthood are hitting today’s children too fast and not only via the pernicious influences of popular culture, marketing and peer pressure. More and more children are being diagnosed with chronic diseases that have previously been only seen in middle age adults.
Harvard Medical School researchers have found that there has been a 27 percent increase in the number of children aged 8-17 diagnosed with high blood pressure; one reason is a rise among children in obesity (which is also rising among kids around the globe). Today’s children are also at very real risk of type 2 diabetes, pre-diabetes, sleep apnea and joint pain, all diseases that had struck previous generations as they entered middle age.
Indeed, earlier this year, the American Academy of Pediatrics released its first guidelines for type 2 diabetes, sometimes called adult-onset diabetes, among children, as pediatricians have not been trained to identify and diagnose this disease. Doctors are also expressing concerns that, in order to treat these diseases in children, they are prescribing them with the same medicines that adults take but with no idea about the long-term effects.
Minority children are especially at risk. The new study also found that, in African-American children, blood pressure was 28 percent higher than in non-Hispanic white children. Previous research has found that there is a higher rate of diabetes in minorities than in white: African-Americans and Native Americans are twice as likely to have diabetes as whites and Hispanics, 1.7 times as likely.
We Know What’s Raising Blood Pressure in Kids: Let’s Do Something About It!
In the new study, researchers drew their data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) III which collects information on health, eating and lifestyle behaviors. 3,200 children were involved in the survey in 1988-1994 and more than 8,300 in 1999-2008. While the children found to have high blood pressure did not have diagnosed hypertension (which requires a threshold blood pressure reading of 140 -90), having elevated blood pressure (anything above 120-80) at a young age sets one at real risk for future serious health problems.
We do know some of the main culprits that are contributing to kids’ health woes. The researchers point out that the vast majority (more than 80 percent) of the children in the study consumed some 2,300 milligrams of salt, well over the recommended 1,500 milligrams. They also note that around 75 percent of the salt that Americans consumes comes from processed, addictive foods.
It’s a clear sign that the U.S. Department of Food and Agriculture needs to step in and regulate the amount of sodium (and sugar, and fat) in such foods. Cries of “nanny state” are frequently raised at such suggestions, but we need to keep social and demographic factors in mind. By 2020, more than half of Americans under 18 will belong to a racial or ethnic minority group; now is the time for the U.S. to take serious measures in the packaged foods that are aggressively marketed to children and and to Hispanic children in particular, according to one study.
Such foods are not only often cheaply priced but are all too often the most readily available in urban and lower-income communities where minority families live in disproportionate numbers. Even when healthy foods like fresh fruits and vegetables are available, their price often far exceeds that of packaged and processed foods. Families watching their budgets may also feel they have little choice but to choose foods that will last a long time: not everyone has time to get to the store or outdoor market routinely for fresh produce.
The majority of students at the small university in Jersey City where I teach are minorities, many of whom live in urban neighborhoods. They are in their late teens or early twenties and quite a few have high blood pressure (as I learned when they explained why they missed a couple of classes for doctor’s appointments). Last spring, one student disappeared for two weeks due to being hospitalized when his blood sugar reached elevated levels; he was subsequently diagnosed with diabetes. Rare is the student whom I’ve seen eating a fresh apple. Based on what they munch on before class, breakfast means an Egg McMuffin.
More children than ever are at risk of developing chronic health problems that can limit their activities in their adult lives. New guidelines for school lunches and for what foods are available to students on school grounds via vending machines are a solid first step but just that. The new study is a wake-up call to use what we know and get serious about making changes in the food that many Americans, and especially many young Americans, eat every day.
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