Allergies can make children miserable. But scientists say that they may have even more profound effects on health that can impact these children even as adults.
Reporting in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Dr. Jonathan Silverberg, director of the Northwestern University Multidisciplinary Eczema Center, found that children who suffered from asthma, eczema or hay fever—the most common allergic reactions among youngsters—showed higher rates of obesity, hypertension and high cholesterol compared to children without allergies. All of these are known risk factors for heart disease and may prime these young people for heart problems later in life.
The findings suggest that the large proportion of children affected by allergies—the latest figures show that it’s the third most common chronic disease among children—could fuel a surge in heart disease in coming decades. “It may very well be that soaring rates of allergic diseases in past decades have impacted the heart disease rates in this country,” says Silverberg. And that goes for coming years as well. “It’s certainly the subject of future research to figure out whether we think increasing rates of allergic disease are driving heart disease or not.”
There may be several ways that allergies are fueling heart problems. For one, children with allergies tend to be more sedentary and less physically active, in part because going outdoors and exercising may exacerbate their symptoms. They also tend to adopt unhealthy behaviors such as smoking and drinking.
Biologically, allergic diseases may involve more inflammation, and inflammation is increasingly implicated in many of heart disease’s primary risk factors, including hypertension and high cholesterol. “We didn’t used to think that allergic inflammation from asthma and eczema were driving heart disease, but we are starting to see more and more a connection between the two,” says Silverberg.
He notes that the increases he documented among the 13,275 children under 17 years old from the National Health Interview Survey were small, so the correlations don’t mean that most children who develop allergies can expect heart problems in the future. Asthma and hay fever, for example, were associated with a 1.3% and 1.14% higher risk respectively of hypertension, and just under 1% greater risk of high cholesterol. The small effect can be attributed to the fact that most young children don’t develop heart disease, or even heart disease risk factors, while they’re young, but the fact that these increases were observed at all is significant.
“We definitely need to do a better job of controlling allergic disease,” says Silverberg. “Right now we have very few options available that are safe for long term use.” Pediatricians will now be faced with the difficult task of balancing the side effects of some of these drug treatments against the harm of leaving the allergies untreated, which potentially can be just as dangerous for the heart.