How prenatal DHA can reduce the risk of high blood pressure in children
Talking Nutrition Editors
Combatting high blood pressure in overweight or obese children
- Worldwide it is estimated that 340 million children and adolescents aged between 5 and 16 years old, and 41 million children under the age of five years, are overweight or obese, putting them at a significant risk of high blood pressure.1
- DHA, also known as docosahexaenoic acid, is a long chain omega-3 fatty acid best known for its roles in brain and visual development and function, and aspects of immune function.
- A new study has identified a link between algal DHA supplementation in pregnant women and low blood pressure in children who are overweight or obese.2
A spotlight on high blood pressure in children
High blood pressure is a common consequence of weight gain and obesity, affecting approximately one in five adults worldwide. Alarmingly, the prevalence of high blood pressure during childhood is also on the rise, partly owing to higher rates of obesity. In a study investigating more than 20,000 children aged 2 to 17 years in the US, 36% of children had high blood pressure at least once during the year.3 When a child experiences high blood pressure, it can lead to hypertension in adulthood (a condition where blood pressure is persistently elevated) which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, if left unmanaged. Most individuals with the condition have no visible symptoms at all.
The rise in hypertension among populations worldwide is placing significant burdens on healthcare systems, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has deemed hypertension a global public health issue. Should current blood pressure levels persist, the global cost of high blood pressure may be as high as $1 trillion over a ten-year period, with indirect costs reaching $3.6 trillion if left untreated.4
In many cases, high blood pressure can be alleviated through healthy diet and exercise alone. However, a lack of awareness often prevents individuals from taking the necessary steps to prevent the condition from progressing.
How algal DHA can reduce the risk of blood pressure
The consumption of DHA and eicosapentaenoic acid from fish oil have been reported in some studies to reduce blood pressure in adults and children.5,6 Recently, there has been a growing amount of interest in the association between DHA supplementation in pregnancy and early infancy with long-term physiological outcomes, including blood pressure.
In a recently published double-blind, randomized trial, researchers analyzed the effect of prenatal algal DHA supplementation on the blood pressure of 171 children.7 During pregnancy, women received either three capsules per day containing 600mg of DHA or a placebo from a mean (SD) of 14.5 (3.7) weeks’ gestation until birth. Systolic blood pressure (SBP) and diastolic blood pressure (DBP), were measured in children every six months between four and six years of age, as well as dietary intake, growth and cognitive development.
The results demonstrated a significant link between prenatal supplementation of DHA and blood pressure in children who are overweight or obese. For example, in the placebo group, children who were overweight or obese experienced a mean increase in blood pressure of 3.94 mmHg SBP and compared to 4.97 mmHg DBP for overweight or obese children in the DHA group.The fact that obesity or being overweight increases blood pressure in adults and children is well known, these statistically significant findings demonstrate the benefits of intrauterine exposure to DHA for overweight or obese children.
The report also found that the children of women who received DHA during pregnancy did not experience an increase in SBP or DBP if they became overweight or obese compared to children who were not overweight or obese. This suggests that children who become overweight or obese may lower their risk of higher blood pressure if their mother increased their DHA intake during pregnancy.
A healthier future
This promising new research highlights the importance of nutrition during the first 1000 days of life. These new insights, in combination with education strategies to encourage better nutrition and physical activity, could help to significantly lower the burden of hypertension on communities worldwide.
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- WHO, ‘Obesity and overweight: factsheet’, [website], 2018, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight.
- Kerling E. et al., ‘Effect of prenatal docosahexaenoic acid supplementation on blood pressure in children with overweight condition or obesity’, JAMA Netw Open. 2019;2(2):e190088.
- Beacher D. et al., ‘Recognition of elevated blood pressure in an outpatient pediatric tertiary setting’, J Pediatr., vol. 166, no. 5, pg. 1233-1239, 2015.
- Gaziano T. et al., ‘The global cost of non-optimal blood pressure’, J of Hypertension, vol. 27, no. 7, pg. 1472-1477, 2009.
- Van Elswyk M. et al., ‘Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid and blood pressure: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials’, Am J Hypertens, vol. 27, no. 7, pg. 885-96, 2014.
- Jochems SH. et al., ‘Potential programming of selected cardiometabolic risk factors at childhood by maternal polyunsaturated fatty acid availability in the MEFAB cohort’, Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids, vol. 100, pg. 21-27, 2015.
- Op cit. (Kerling 2019).
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