It’s no secret that second hand smoke poses serious health hazards, but the damage can be especially insidious among children, setting them up for possible heart disease later in life.
That’s the conclusion of Dr. Giacomo Simonetti, an assistant professor at the Children’s Hospital of University of Bern, who conducted a study of the effects of parental smoking on children while he was a fellow at University of Heidelberg. Simonetti and his team were aware that about half of adults with hypertension, which is a risk factor for heart disease and stroke, also had high blood pressure as children. So they decided to investigate how youngsters develop hypertension, hoping to find ways to prevent the unhealthy carry-over into adulthood. (More on Time.com: Smoking Cessation Linked to Happiness, Elevated Moods)
It turns out that secondhand smoke exposure significantly increased the risk of high blood pressure among preschool children, even after adjusting for other hypertension risk factors among the youngsters themselves, such as weight and age.
“All of these factors were considered and adjusted, but passive smoking remained an independent risk factor for high blood pressure,” says Simonetti.
In fact, the preschoolers exposed to cigarette smoke had a 21% greater risk of having blood pressure values above the 85th percentile for their age, compared to youngsters not exposed to secondhand smoke.
That’s particularly concerning among five- and six-year olds, since their elevated blood pressure at such a young age primes them for maintaining this hazardous state into adulthood, and for chronic disease as well. “We know that blood pressure during childhood determines blood pressure in adulthood, so if a child has high blood pressure, it is likely to remain high in adulthood,” says Simonetti. (More on Time.com: 5 Tips for Kicking Bad Habits)
Exposure to secondhand smoke from parents who light up, he says, is a contributing factor to this early onset hypertension, by stiffening young arteries and making it more difficult for blood to flow freely through vessels. So reducing such exposure to passive smoking among toddlers may also slash heart disease and stroke rates among adults. “If we avoid secondhand smoke exposure in childhood, perhaps we can lower blood pressure among children and therefore lower blood pressure among adults, and probably also lower [heart] disease among adults as well,” he says. It would certainly be a powerful prevention tool for avoiding the leading cause of death among American adults.