More young folks have high blood pressure, UNC study says

Staff writerMay 25, 2011 

— Researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill have found that young adults may be much more likely to have high blood pressure – traditionally a problem for older people – than previously thought.

The researchers think the growing national problems with diet, obesity and sedentary lifestyles are largely to blame for the increase.

The study appeared this week in the online version of the journal “Epidemiology” and will be in the upcoming print edition. Researchers tested more than 14,000 people between the ages of 24 and 32 and found that nearly one in five had high blood pressure – nearly five times the rate found in an earlier study.

High blood pressure, also called hypertension, is a factor in heart disease and strokes, the top- and third-ranked leading causes of death among Americans, respectively.

High blood pressure is easy to overlook, particularly in younger adults who might not be aware they’re at risk, said Kathleen Mullan Harris, co-author of the paper and interim director at the UNC Carolina Population Center. She called the findings evidence of a sleeping epidemic.

“We tend to think of young adults are rather healthy, but a prevalence of 19 percent with high blood pressure is alarming, especially since more than half did not know that they had high blood pressure,” she said.

The data for the report were derived from a larger ongoing study, called the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, that has been tracking the same group of people since 1995, when they were ages 12 through 19.

When the study began, 11 percent of them were obese. Five years later, that had climbed to 22 percent. By the time the blood pressure data was taken, three years ago, 37 percent were obese and about 60 percent were overweight.

Until now, estimates of the prevalence of high blood pressure in Americans had been based largely on a different study, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which looks across a wider range of ages. Pulling data for about 800 young adults from that broader study indicated that about 4 percent suffered from high blood pressure.

Eric Whitsel, one of the UNC researchers involved in the new study, said the earlier one was credible and well-regarded.

The UNC researchers carefully examined the differences between the studies but weren’t able to find a likely cause for the gap. They believe that the true number is probably somewhere between the two, Harris said. That would still be significantly higher than previously thought, and cause for more attention to blood pressure among young adults as well as further investigation.

The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health is the first large-scale national study aimed at learning more about health issues among young adults, said Harris, the principal investigator of that study.

The revelations about blood pressure, Harris said, underline the importance of studying health in young adults, who are at a stage in their lives when they’re still forming behavior patterns such as exercise and eating habits that will affect their health over the course of their lives.

“Processes that lead to hypertension and chronic illness begin early in life when young people begin to make their own lifestyle choice and develop healthy health habits,” she said. “If we can intervene early in life to reduce risk we will avoid health problems for millions of people and save the country billions of dollars in health care.” or 919-829-4526

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