Higher blood pressure at 18 means hardening arteries at 40

Feb. 4, 2014, NPR [Shots Blog]

By Maanvi Singh

Young people in their teens and early 20s probably aren’t thinking about heart disease. But maybe it’s time they did.

People who have slightly higher blood pressure when they’re ages 18 to 25 are more likely to have high blood pressure and hardening of the arteries in their 40s, a study says. About one quarter of the people in this study were in that group.

“We need to be aware that what happens when we’re young adults is going to have an impact,” says Norrina Allen, an epidemiologist and the study’s lead author.

She and her colleagues at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine looked at data from 4,600 men and women in Chicago, Birmingham, Ala., Minneapolis, and Oakland, Calif., who have been followed for over 25 years. About 19 percent of the people had blood pressure that was consistently higher than their peers. Another 5 percent started with higher blood pressure that then rose over time.

With both groups, most of them had blood-pressure readings that still fell within the normal range for their age.

But they were much more likely to develop hypertension by age 40. Those with increasing blood pressure were four times as likely to have hardening of the arteries in middle age, while those with consistently high blood pressure were 2.5 times as likely to do so. Both are considered risk factors for heart disease

A third of Americans have high blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Half of them don’t have it under control.

The findings were published in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, on Feb. 4.

About one third of American adults have high blood pressure, but doctors typically don’t focus on controlling it until middle age. If the trend found in this study is verified by other research, it could mean that teenagers and young adults will need to pay a lot more attention to their blood pressure.

Young people should start by getting yearly physicals and making sure that they’re at least aware of their blood pressure, Allen tells Shots. And she says that physicians should take the blood-pressure readings of their younger patients more seriously.

“While you wouldn’t prescribe medications for this group, you might have conversations with those individuals about ways they can improve their diet or increase physical activity,” Allen says. Lifestyle changes aren’t always easy, she says, but they can have a big influence on blood pressure.

The study does have a few limitations. For one, the researchers only looked at participants’ risk for heart disease. The next step is to see how many of these people actually go on to develop heart disease or have heart attacks.

More importantly, Allen says, researchers don’t know yet know what will work best to reduce the apparent risk for that 25 percent.

But “many of these cardiovascular risk factors are cumulative,” Allen says. So the sooner someone quits smoking and starts eating healthy and exercising, the better.

Eighteen is when a lot of people move out and become more independent. It’s a great time to pick up healthy habits that will influence your lifestyle for years to come, Allen says, and maybe decrease your risk of heart disease as well.

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