ONE in 12 schoolchildren screened in a major study is already suffering from high blood pressure – putting them at risk of heart disease and stroke in adulthood.
The disturbing findings emerged in a study conducted over 14 months, across a sample of 1,075 children, some of whom were as young as nine.
Other studies have also found that the increasing rate of high blood pressure being diagnosed in children is being linked to the effects of modern unhealthy habits that leave them overweight, lacking in exercise and eating too much salty foods.
One-quarter of the schoolchildren examined in the study in 27 schools across Cork were overweight. Almost twice as many girls as boys are now classified as clinically obese.
Obese children are twice as likely to have high blood pressure than their normal weight classmates.
Study leader, Professor Ivan Perry of UCC's Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, said children who have higher than average blood pressure in their first decade of life are likely to continue to have it for the rest of their lives.
"The problem is that it tracks from childhood to middle age. What you see in middle age is the culmination of 30 or 40 years of lifetime experience," he said.
He said one of the factors implicated is the amount of salt that children are exposed to but is it multi-factorial.
He believes the food industry could play a serious role by lowering levels of salt in common staples such as bread.
The study found the children piled on weight with sedentary pastimes, with one in five watching three or more hours of TV a day – and almost half playing at least one hour of computer games on a school night.
But the greatest concern focused on diet with half the Irish youngsters surveyed ingesting far above the recommended daily salt intake due to their reliance on processed and take-away foods.
The Cork Children's Lifestyle Study (CCLS) looked at youngsters in third and fourth class, aged 9-11 years, and was funded by the National Children's Research Centre in Crumlin.
The study's co-ordinators admitted that the biggest concern was in the area of diet, with 5pc of children not eating any breakfast before school, while 15pc were treated to a takeaway more then once a week by their parents.
And 12pc of parents admitted that their children refuse to eat fruit with 13pc declining to eat vegetables.
The study will now be considered by Health Minister James Reilly, who has repeatedly expressed concern at the soaring levels of obesity in Ireland.
A 2012 study indicated that more than 300,000 Irish children were overweight and obese with the rates having trebled since 2000.
Fianna Fail health spokesman Billy Kelleher warned that Ireland is facing a healthcare timebomb unless greater efforts are made to promote healthier lifestyles and more balanced diets.
"The reality is that unless we act decisively now we are looking at a healthcare crisis in 20, 30 and 40 years' time that will cost the Exchequer billions of euro to tackle," he said.