- Nearly one in three adults—more than 65 million Americans—suffers from high blood pressure, also called hypertension.
- A growing number of young adults are now at risk for the disease.
- High blood pressure leads to more than half of all heart attacks, strokes, and heart failure cases in the United States. It also increases the risk of kidney failure, blindness, and other serious health consequences.
- High blood pressure is a silent killer, often with no obvious or visible symptoms.
- For African Americans, the disease tends to begin at an earlier age and be more severe than among whites, Asians, and Hispanics.
Study shows 19 percent of young adults have high blood pressure. NIH-funded analysis indicates higher risk for young adults than previously believed.
With more than 65 million Americans suffering from the effects of high blood pressure (HBP), it is critical to understand the basics in order to be able to better control the disease. This is even more urgent, since recent research shows that young adults have HBP in increasing numbers.
The new study—which took blood pressure readings of more than 14,000 men and women between 24 and 32 years of age—revealed a higher percentage of high blood pressure readings than results from a previous major study, according to Steven Hirschfeld, Associate Director for Clinical Research for the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). The previous study (NHANES) reported high blood pressure in 4 percent of adults 20 to 39 years of age.
“Investigations into the reasons underlying the reported differences between the [two studies] will no doubt yield additional insight into the measurement of high blood pressure in the young adult populations,” he says.
The study authors wrote that they were unable to pinpoint any reasons for the differences. In addition, they said that many young people are unaware that they have HBP.
Categories for Blood Pressure Levels in Adults
(in mmHg, or millimeters of mercury)
Systolic (top number)
Diastolic (bottom number)
|Normal||Less than 120||And||Less than 80|
|High blood pressure|
|Stage 2||160 or higher||Or||100 or higher|
The ranges in the table apply to most adults (aged 18 and older) who don't have short-term serious illnesses.
All levels above 120/80 mmHg raise your risk, and the risk grows as blood pressure levels rise. "Prehypertension" means you're likely to end up with HBP, unless you take steps to prevent it. —National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
What Is High Blood Pressure?
Simply put, blood pressure is the force exerted by blood on the walls of the arteries and veins as it courses through the body. Like the ocean tide, it is normal for blood pressure to rise and fall throughout the day. Blood pressure is lowest when you are sleeping and rises when you awaken. But when the pressure stays elevated over time, it causes the heart to pump harder and work overtime, possibly leading to various, serious health problems, ranging from hardening of the arteries, stroke, and brain hemorrhage to kidney malfunction and blindness.
Blood pressure is recorded as two numbers, the systolic (pressure during a heartbeat) over the diastolic (pressure between heartbeats). For example, a measurement of 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) is expressed as “120 over 80.” Normal blood pressure is less than 120/80. People with pressures between 120/80 and 139/89 are considered to have pre-hypertension and are likely to develop high blood pressure without preventative measures.
Today, clinical guidelines recommend that physicians work with patients to keep their blood pressures below 140/90 mmHg, and even lower for people with diabetes or kidney ailments. In all cases, patients are encouraged to lose excess weight, exercise regularly, not smoke, limit intake of alcoholic beverages, and follow heart-healthy eating plans, including cutting back on salt and other forms of sodium.
Assessing Your Risk
While many Americans develop high blood pressure as they get older, it is not a hallmark of healthy aging. This is especially critical for African Americans, in whom the disease tends to begin at an earlier age and be more severe. In addition to being at increased risk, they also experience higher rates of death from stroke and kidney disease than does the general population.
While an individual’s blood pressure may be normal now, 90 percent of Americans over 50 years of age have a lifetime risk of high blood pressure, Americans should take action before being diagnosed with high blood pressure.
An Ounce of Prevention
Because blood pressure rises as body weight increases (and obesity is a known risk factor for developing high cholesterol and diabetes, which in turn can lead to heart disease), a loss of as little as 10 pounds can help to lower blood pressure.
Two recent studies confirm the blood pressure benefits of maintaining a healthy diet. First is the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) clinical study, which tested the effects of food nutrients on blood pressure. It emphasizes consumption of fruits, vegetables, and lowfat dairy foods, whole grains, poultry, fish, and nuts, and stresses reduction of fats, red meats, sweets, and sugared beverages.
Second is the DASH-sodium study, which demonstrates the importance of lowering sodium (salt) intake. Most Americans consume far more than the current, daily recommendation of 2,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium—about a teaspoon of table salt—or less. This includes all salt and sodium consumed, not just at the table, but also in cooking. For those with high blood pressure, consuming even less may be advisable, since the DASH-sodium study revealed that diets containing no more than 1,500 mg of sodium per day had still greater pressure-lowering effects.
Regular physical activity is another good step toward controlling or even preventing high blood pressure. Start with 30 minutes of moderate-level activity, such as brisk walking, bicycling or gardening on most—preferably all—days of the week. The activity even may be divided into three, 10-minute periods each. For added benefit, these moderate half-hours may be increased or supplanted by regular, vigorous exercise. Of course, prior to upping the activity level, people should check with their physicians, especially if they have had heart trouble or a previous heart attack, a family history of heart disease at an early age, or other serious health problems.
Another healthy move is to limit alcohol intake. Excess alcohol can raise blood pressure as well as damage the liver, heart, and brain. Drinks should be kept to a maximum of one per day for women, and two for men. (One drink equals 12 ounces of beer or five ounces of wine.)
Finally, quit smoking. Among other things, smoking damages blood vessel walls and speeds hardening of the arteries. Ceasing smoking reduces the risk of heart attack in just one year.
High blood pressure is a silent killer, often with no obvious or visible symptoms. The only way to find out if you have hypertension is through testing by your physician, who will make the diagnosis on the basis of two or more readings taken on different visits.