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Teenagers, Hypertension, and Heart Disease: The Dangers of Hidden Salt

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Essential Hypertension related image Photo: Getty Images

When you think about it, including teenagers, hypertension (high blood pressure), and heart disease all in the same thought really makes quite a bit of sense. After all, teenagers are famous for giving their parents a heart attack. They stay out past curfew (and conveniently “forget” to call), “borrow” the neighbor's golf cart (without first asking if it was okay to borrow it), skip class, forget to turn in homework (or do homework), sneak off to parties they promised you they wouldn’t attend, date a boy to old or girl too young, and generally drive parents a little bit crazy. While they’re busy driving their parents crazy, they’re also creating new “character” lines of their face, strands of silver in their hair, and driving their blood pressure up. Parents of teenagers are seldom surprised to find that they’ve developed hypertension, a known risk factor for heart disease.

Unfortunately, it’s not just the parents who have to worry about hypertension. While only 1-3 percent of teenagers actually have hypertension, what teenagers consume during their teen years may have unexpected consequences that follow them into adulthood leading to the development of premature hypertension and increasing their risk of heart disease.

Hypertension, as defined by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, includes those persons who currently have elevated blood pressure or those who are currently taking medication to lower blood pressure levels. In all, about 32 percent (roughly one-third) of the total population suffer from high blood pressure with women faring slightly worse than men (32.9 percent of women have high blood pressure compared with 31.3 percent of men). While the percentage of young adults with high blood pressure is relatively low when compared to the general population, the instance of high blood pressure is on the increase. As young adults leave their teen years behind them and enter adulthood, the instance of high blood pressure rises significantly. Over nine percent of young men over the age of 20 report high blood pressure.

One of the culprits in the rise of hypertension in young adults is the consumption of salt during the teen years. In a study funded by the American Heart Association, researchers found that reducing the amount of salt consumed as a teenager has the potential to dramatically decrease the rate of hypertension, stroke, and heart disease during adulthood.

Currently, the American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 1,500 milligrams of salt (sodium) per day. To put it in perspective, 1,500 milligrams is only about 3/4 teaspoon of salt. Teenagers tend to consume over 3,800 milligrams (9 grams) of salt per day. (The average adult man consumes 3,100 to 4,700 milligrams per day with women consuming 2,300 to 3,100 milligrams per day.) This is more than double the recommended daily allowance. Researchers believe that by eating three grams of salt less per day, teenagers could reduce the risk of hypertension by as much as 44 to 63 percent in their teen and young adult years with a 30 to 43 percent reduction in hypertension from ages 35 to 50.

If asked, most teenagers would deny that they are consuming too much salt. After all, who would knowingly add two or more teaspoons to their food per day? And yet, they are doing just that by their food choices. Most of the salt consumed (80 percent) comes from processed foods such as canned goods, condiments, bread, and the like. Add to that the dietary staple (or new food group as one teenager explained to me) of pizza, along with fast food, and it’s easy to see how daily salt consumption can quickly reach an unhealthy level.

As a parent, you can help your teen understand the dangers of hypertension and heart disease. Teach them how to read labels and empower them to take charge of their future health, by developing healthy eating habits now.

American Heart Association (2010, November 14). Less salt in teenagers' diet may improve heart health in adulthood. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 14, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com¬ /releases/2010/11/101114161821.htm

FastStats, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/hyprtens.htm and http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hus/hus09.pdf#068

Samuel S. Gidding, MD, Hypertension, Kids Health, August 2008, http://kidshealth.org/teen/diseases_conditions/heart/hypertension.html

J. Anderson, L. Young, E. Long and S. Prior, Sodium in the Diet, 12 May 2010, http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09354.html

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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