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High BP in Young Adults, Heart Trouble Later?

25-year study tied even slight rise in early adulthood to future risk of clogged arteries

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Amy Norton

HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Feb. 4, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Twenty-somethings with even mildly elevated blood pressure may face an increased risk of clogged heart arteries by middle age, a long-term U.S. study finds.

The study, which tracked nearly 4,700 people, found that even "pre-hypertension" in young adulthood was linked to a higher risk of calcium buildup in the heart arteries 25 years later.

Experts said the findings send a message to young adults: Know your blood pressure numbers and, if needed, change your lifestyle to get them in the normal range.

"What you do as a young adult matters," said lead researcher Norrina Allen, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in Chicago. "We shouldn't wait until middle-age to address blood pressure."

That same message goes for doctors, too, Allen added. "Many doctors might not think a small elevation in blood pressure (in a young adult) even warrants a discussion," she said.

The new study appears in the Feb. 5 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The good news, Allen noted, is that lifestyle changes can "absolutely" be enough for a healthy young person with moderately elevated blood pressure.

An expert not involved in the study agreed. "Lifestyle changes do work. Even within the span of a few months, blood pressure can dramatically improve," said Dr. George Bakris, a professor of medicine at University of Chicago Medicine who wrote an editorial published with the study.

Diet changes, such as cutting out salty processed foods and getting more fruits and vegetables, are key. So is moderate exercise, like walking, study author Allen said. And if you're overweight, even cutting a few pounds can help lower blood pressure.

Bakris pointed to some steps that are less well known: Watch your drinking, since alcohol can raise blood pressure; and get enough sleep.

"It's important to get at least six hours of uninterrupted sleep each night," Bakris said. "Ideally, you'd get six to eight hours."

In the United States, about one-third of adults have high blood pressure, which is defined as a systolic pressure (the top number) of 140 or higher, or a diastolic pressure (the bottom number) of 90 or higher, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Normal" blood pressure is anything below 120/80, while numbers that fall in between "normal" and "high" are considered "pre-hypertension."

The new findings are based on 4,681 people from four U.S. cities who were between the ages of 18 and 30 when they entered the study in the mid-1980s. Over the next couple of decades, they had their blood pressure taken periodically. At year 25, they underwent CT scans to look for calcium buildup in the arteries -- which is considered an early sign of heart disease.

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