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Study links sleep apnea in childhood to high blood pressure during teenage years

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Hershey, PA — Kids with obstructive sleep apnea may have a significantly higher risk of developing high blood pressure as teens, according to researchers from Pennsylvania State University.

Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in the throat intermittently relax and block the airway during sleep. Noticeable symptoms are snoring and pauses in breathing.

For the study, 421 children between the ages of 5 and 12 spent the night in a sleep lab, where their sleep was monitored and blood pressure levels recorded. Results showed that about 12% of the participants had obstructive sleep apnea.

The participants were reevaluated for obstructive sleep apnea and high blood pressure eight years after the initial study period concluded. At this point, they ranged in age from 16 to 23, with an average age of 16. Those who had been diagnosed with sleep apnea as children were three times more likely to have high blood pressure – a major risk for heart disease.


“Our study showed that pediatric sleep apnea can act as a gateway to future hypertension,” lead study author Julio Fernandez-Mendoza, an associate professor in the Penn State College of Medicine’s Sleep Research and Treatment Center, said in a press release from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. “Because most cases of sleep apnea go undiagnosed in adults and children alike, the problem needs more attention. Sleep apnea and its risk factors should be screened for, monitored and targeted early in life to prevent future cardiovascular disease.”

The release notes that obstructive sleep apnea affects millions of people around the world, including an estimated 10% of school-age children. Treatment can include surgery to remove tonsils and adenoids, or the use of a CPAP machine. For children with obesity, healthy eating, exercise and weight loss can also help. Fernandez-Mendoza advises parents to talk with a pediatrician if they suspect their child has obstructive sleep apnea.

The study was published online June 23 in JAMA Cardiology.

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