Close to 20% of young adults have high blood pressure, a new government-funded study reports.
For the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, dubbed Add Health, funded by the National Institutes of Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers asked 14,000 men and women between the ages of 24 and 32 about their high blood pressure history and then took blood pressure readings of participants.
High blood pressure (hypertension) was defined as 140/90 millimeters of mercury or higher. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, a normal blood pressure is 120/80 or less.The researchers found that 19% of participants had high blood pressure.
The findings, published online in Epidemiology today, are significantly higher than other recent research from another large, ongoing health study, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which found only 4% of adults 20 to 39 have high blood pressure.
"We explored several possible explanations for the difference between this study and NHANES, including participant characteristics, where they were examined, and the types of devices for measuring their blood pressure," said Kathleen Mullan Harris, a principal investigator of the study, in a press statement. "None of these factors could account for the differences in estimates between the two surveys."
"These statistics are certainly worrisome since the prevalence of hypertension markedly increases with age, so a prevalence of 19% at such a young age is already a high prevalence that will certainly lead to substantial cardiovascular disease as aging occurs," says Chip Lavie, medical director of the Cardiac Rehabilitation and Prevention at the John Ochsner Heart and Vascular Institute, in New Orleans.
Lavie says one reason for the discrepancy in the two studies could be that the prevalence of overweight and obesity was 67% in this study and was only 58% in NHANES.
In a press statement, Steven Hirschfeld, associate director for clinical research for the NIH's Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development said, "The Add Health analysis raises interesting questions. Investigations into the reasons underlying the reported differences between the Add Health and NHANES findings will no doubt yield additional insight into the measurement of high blood pressure in the young adult population."
The results concern heart experts. "When we look at this increase in high blood pressure, I'm not surprised because it's often associated with being overweight and obese," says Suzanne Steinbaum, director of women and heart disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York and an AHA spokesperson. Steinbaum points to the increased prevalence of obesity in youth. There's been a 70% increase in all populations and about 30% of our young people are obese
The study authors wrote that many young people are unaware that they have high blood pressure. According to Add Health researchers, 11% of participants said they had been told they had high blood pressure prior to the research, fewer than the 19% found to have high blood pressure during the study.
"We've usually thought of this population as being healthy and these are people that shouldn't be sick and they are," says Steinbaum. She blames salt- and sugar-packed processed foods and says young adults need to get moving and making healthier food choices. If they don't address it, this group of young adults will get cardiovascular disease.
Steinbaum says you can't change risk factors for heart disease like family history, age, and your sex, but you can address other risk factors that lead to heart disease including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, a sedentary lifestyle, stress, smoking, and diabetes.
"Eighty percent of the time, heart disease is preventable," Steinbaum says