By Matthew Lucks, MD, Scripps Health
When we hear that someone is being treated for high blood pressure, many of us assume the person is probably in their 50s or 60s. However, a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control found that while the number of adults over age 18 who have high blood pressure, also called hypertension, has not increased in the past 10 years, more of them are taking medication to control their blood pressure—especially among young adults age 18-39.
Why are so many more young people increasingly being treated for hypertension with medication? One reason may be that the medical community’s definition of hypertension has changed in the past few years; the thresholds for high blood pressure are lower than they used to be. Blood pressure is measured in two numbers. The first number (systolic) indicates the pressure on the walls of your blood vessels when your heart beats; the second (diastolic) indicates the pressure between beats. Blood pressure is considered high if your systolic blood pressure is greater than or equal to 140 mm Hg, or your diastolic blood pressure is greater than or equal to 90 mm Hg (written as 140/90). Normal blood pressure is below 120/80; anything between the two numbers is considered borderline high. Because more younger people now meet these new criteria, more are being diagnosed with hypertension and treated for it with medication.
Blood pressure awareness
According to the CDC report, high blood pressure awareness increased among adults between 40-59 and 60 and over, but not among people 18-39. Since fewer adults in this age group are aware that they have high blood pressure, fewer make lifestyle or dietary changes that could have a significant effect on bringing blood pressure numbers back down to normal. Moreover, decreasing amounts of physical activity and increasing levels of obesity and diabetes, especially among teenagers, sets the stage for people to develop hypertension at an early age. Consequently, by age 18, the disease has already progressed to the point that medical therapy is needed.
Clearly, we need to get the word out about hypertension among younger people, and it needs to start very early. Most grade school children know about the dangers of smoking; they should also be aware of the dangers of high blood pressure and high cholesterol. It’s never too soon to teach kids to make smart food choices and encourage them to exercise instead of spending their time in front of the television, computer screen or hand-held game player.
Tips to help young people avoid developing high blood pressure
Maintain healthy weight. Obesity among people under age 18 is higher than ever. Excess weight increases the risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes. Young people who maintain healthier weights will have healthier hearts.
Eat smart. Build meals around low-fat protein sources such as fish, poultry, lean meats, and beans. Trim excess fat, and bake or broil instead of frying. Fill out meals with whole grains and fresh, whole foods such as vegetables and fruits. Minimize the use of prepackaged, processed and “fast” foods that can be sky-high in salt, sugar, saturated fats, trans fats and tropical oils.
Be active. Get at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity a day, such as sports, bike riding, swimming or hiking at least five days a week. Exercise stimulates a substance called nitric oxide, which helps keeps blood vessels open. Exercise also strengthens the heart and burns off excess weight.
No smoking. According to the 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 90 percent of adult smokers began at or before age 18. Smokers are much more likely to develop heart disease than non-smokers. Smoking puts extra stress on the heart, and increases the likelihood of developing an artery-blocking blood clot.
By learning to live heart-healthier lives now, preteens and adolescents may be able to avoid medical therapy for hypertension in the future.
Matthew Lucks, MD, is a cardiologist with Scripps Health. “To Your Health” is brought to you by the physicians and staff of Scripps Health. For more information, please call 1-800-SCRIPPS or visit Scripps.org.
Media Contact: Lisa Ohmstede