Student Well-Being

Sodium May Be Linked to Increased Blood Pressure in Youths, Study Finds

By Gina Cairney — July 22, 2013 3 min read
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Obesity rates among low-income preschool children are declining some, but about 17 percent of youths ages 2-19 are considered obese, a condition which can negatively impact academic performance.

Add to that another growing problem that may be harder to detect, researchers say, without regular monitoring.

Blood pressure among children and adolescents is increasing, according to findings published in the American Heart Association journal Hypertension, and researchers have found an association between elevated blood pressure, and obesity and excess salt intake.

Researchers compared children in two surveys spanning 13 years, and found that children were about twice as likely to have elevated blood pressure if their body mass or waistline measurements were in the top 25 percent for their age group; and children with the greatest sodium consumption were 36 percent more likely to have elevated blood pressure.

Despite this rise in blood pressure, however, children often can’t be officially diagnosed with hypertension because blood pressure norms for children and teenagers can vary based on age, sex, and height of the child, the research states.

An official diagnosis, according to an AHA news release, requires blood pressure readings to be high three times in a row.

Just as obesity can have a profound health impact on youths’ lives current and future, high blood pressure can also be problematic. As a risk factor for stroke, heart disease, and kidney failure, high blood pressure accounts for about 350,000 preventable deaths a year in the United States, according to the AHA.

So where is all this salt coming from?

There have long been warnings about consuming too much salt, but sodium intake is expected to increase, Bernard Rosner, the lead author of the study, and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, said in the news release.

“It seems there’s been a little bit of listening to dietary recommendations, but not a lot,” he said.

Sodium is a nutrient that’s needed by the body, but the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend children consume no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day, and healthy adults consume no more than 2,300 mg.

Americans generally consume more sodium than their bodies need—primarily in the form of salt—which elevates their blood pressure, putting them at risk for chronic diseases. Salt is a versatile food ingredient, and according to the guidelines, is mostly consumed through processed foods.

Sodium consumption among children and adolescents between 2-19 years old is high compared to that of adults, according to the CDC, with 13-18 year olds consuming, on average, about 3,500 mg of sodium per day, 1,200 mg more than the general recommendation of 2,300 mg. The youngest age group does no better, consuming an average of about 2,300 mg per day, which is 800 mg more than the recommended 1,500 mg for children.

The top 10 sources of sodium intake for children and adolescents is what you are likely to see in school meals, which includes pizza, cold cuts, and cured meats, soups, and frankfurters and sausages.

The CDC offers some strategies on how schools can reduce sodium content in its foods, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released new rules regulating fat, salt, sugar, and calorie content in snacks and vending machine foods sold in schools.

The rules are set to take effect during the 2014-15 school year, but districts can choose to begin implementing them sooner. Although the rules make some significant changes on the types of foods students will have access to at school, not all the bad stuff is completely wiped out, like sodas and chips.

Chart 1: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Chart 2: Source: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Chart: Gina Cairney
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.