Children and adolescents who have high blood pressure may be at risk of poorer cognitive skills, finds a new study published in The Journal of Pediatrics.

High blood pressure may hinder children's cognitive skills, researchers find.

While high blood pressure, or hypertension, is perceived by some people to be a condition that only affects adults, studies have shown that it affects around 3-4 percent of children and adolescents aged 8-17 years.

A child's blood pressure is calculated differently to that of adults; in general, a child is considered to have hypertension if their blood pressure is the same as or higher than 95 percent of children of the same age, sex, and height.

Similar to adults, children who are overweight or obese, have a poor diet and lack of exercise, a family history of hypertension, or who have certain medical conditions - such as heart and kidney disease - are at increased risk of high blood pressure.

According to study co-author Dr. Marc B. Lande, of the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, and colleagues, previous research has shown that high blood pressure can interfere with adult's cognitive functioning, but there has been little research on whether this association rings true for children.

Hypertension linked to poorer performance on cognitive tests

For their study, the research assessed the cognitive test results of 150 children aged 10-18 years. Of these, 75 had newly diagnosed hypertension, while 75 had normal blood pressure.

The team excluded subjects from the analysis if they had other conditions known to impact cognitive skills, such as learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and sleep disorders.

"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," explains Dr. Lande.

Compared with children and adolescents who had normal blood pressure, those with high blood pressure performed worse on tests of visual skills, visual and verbal memory, and processing speed, the team reports.

What is more, the researchers found that high blood pressure was more common among children with sleep problems, supporting previous research suggesting poor sleep can impair cognitive functioning.

Findings 'should not be a cause for concern'

The team stresses that the differences in cognitive skills between children and adolescents with and without hypertension were small, and that the cognitive test scores of both groups were within the normal range.

As such, the researchers say their results indicate that high blood pressure might lead to poorer cognitive performance in youth, rather than cognitive impairment.

However, Dr. Lande told Medical News Today that their results should not be a cause for concern for parents.

"[...] the differences between children with hypertension and those with normal blood pressure that we found were subtle and occurred in the normal range of the tests. The hypertensive children were not cognitively impaired. 

Our results do, however, underscore that children with hypertension should be identified by primary care providers and managed according to published guidelines."

Dr. Marc B. Lande

In terms of future research, Dr. Lande told MNT that the team plans to conduct neuroimaging in youth with high blood pressure, in order to assess how hypertension affects the brain.