Hypertension is clouding the joys of childhood
Childhood is normally associated with health, playfulness and a phase in life without worries or fear. However, this ideal definition of childhood is becoming cluttered with unwanted risk factors linked to the early development of cardiovascular disease, especially in South Africa.
Global data on the prevalence of high blood pressure in children is still lacking but numerous tracking studies have shown that children and adolescents with high blood pressure have a higher risk of developing hypertension in early adulthood.
Prof Ruan Kruger of the Hypertension in Africa Research team (HART) at the North-West University (NWU) says children globally are suffering the consequences of unhealthy lifestyle behaviours including excess consumption of processed foods and sugary drinks and long periods of sedentary time.
“These consequences include obesity and early compromise of the blood vessels, contributing to the early onset of hypertension.”
Prof Kruger is the principal investigator in a large prospective research study in collaboration with the University of Basel, Switzerland. The title of the study is Exercise, Arterial Modulation and Nutrition in Youth South Africa (ExAMIN Youth SA).
North West’s children in the spotlight
“This study includes about 1 000 children between five and nine years of age attending public primary schools in the North West province, and is one of the largest multidisciplinary childhood studies in South Africa,” says Prof Kruger.
“We collect data within the Dr Kenneth Kaunda district in Potchefstroom and Klerksdorp, to determine the prevalence of childhood hypertension and obesity as clinical conditions in South Africa. We also investigate the risk factors and mediators of obesity and hypertension, including physical inactivity, unhealthy diet, life stress and biomarkers.”
Prof Kruger says aside from the obvious risk factors of cardiovascular disease, there are many other contributing risk factors that make children more vulnerable to developing cardiovascular disease. These risk factors include exposure to domestic violence, injury, poverty, malnutrition, pollution, poor sanitation and even intrauterine exposure from maternal risk factors, all contributing to adverse psychosocial stress.
“During the critical growth phases in children, these adverse exposures lead to poor cardiovascular health and an increased risk of hypertension and future cardiovascular complications.”
May is measurement month
Making the public aware of hypertension in children and young adults is vital, and so Prof Kruger is also closely involved in the International Society of Hypertension and their awareness campaign, May Measurement Month.
Held in May each year, this is a global awareness strategy to measure blood pressure in volunteers around the globe so as to detect the true prevalence of high blood pressure in various participating countries.
Prof Kruger’s research involves investigating how children can develop health-promoting habits and targets the brain. He says a child’s brain is uniquely plastic to the learning environment and can be trained to acquire healthy habits that can prevent the future development of hypertension and the risks of morbidity and mortality that go with it.
He is also on the Scientific Council of the International Congress on Hypertension in Children and Adolescents and addresses an African-centred perspective on childhood hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
Prof Ruan Kruger of the Hypertension in Africa Research team (HART) at the NWU is the principal investigator in a large prospective research study in collaboration with the University of Basel, Switzerland.