As childhood obesity skyrockets, the secondary effect of high blood pressure (hypertension) is also on the increase among children. While hypertension can negatively affect the adult brain, very little research has been done on the cognitive effects of childhood hypertension.
In a new multi-university study, researchers found that hypertension in children and teens is linked to slightly poorer performance on tests of cognition, particularly in areas of visual and verbal memory, processing speed, and verbal skills, compared to kids without hypertension. Furthermore, dysfunctional sleep — another strong risk factor for hypertension — exacerbated these negative effects.
For the study, the researchers tested the cognitive skills of 75 adolescents aged 10-18 years with newly-diagnosed hypertension and compared the results to a control group of 75 adolescents without hypertension. Children who had other factors that are known to affect cognitive skills were not included in the study (e.g., ADHD, learning disabilities).
“We wanted to make sure that if we found differences between children with and without hypertension, it was likely associated with the hypertension itself, not any of these other factors,” said Marc B. Lande, M.D., M.P.H., at the University of Rochester.
The findings revealed that the children with hypertension performed worse on the cognitive tests measuring visual and verbal memory, processing speed, and verbal skills. Additionally, more children with sleep issues had hypertension, which intensified the effect of poor sleep on cognition and executive function.
It is important to note, however, that the differences between groups were small and that the average cognitive test scores of both groups were within normal ranges. The children with hypertension were not cognitively impaired, but rather performed less well than children without hypertension.
Overall, the new findings provide evidence that hypertension in children is tied to a subtle pattern of decreased performance on cognitive testing.
“In the future, we want to better understand if there are physical changes to the brain in children who have hypertension that could explain these cognitive test results,” said Lande.
Knowing how these physical changes might affect cognition could be important in future studies that investigate whether antihypertensive treatments could help improve cognitive performance in children with hypertension and reverse or prevent future adult hypertension-related problems.
The study involved researchers from several institutions, including the University of Rochester, Emory University, Maimonides Medical Center, University of Texas at Houston, University of North Carolina, Thomas Jefferson University, University of Maryland, and the University of California at Los Angeles.
The findings are published in The Journal of Pediatrics.