CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Researchers 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 University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill 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. Researchers tested more than 14,000 people between the ages of 24 and 32 and found that nearly 1 in 5 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.
"A prevalence of 19 percent (of young adults) with high blood pressure is alarming, especially since more than half did not know that they had high blood pressure," she said.
Data were derived from the larger National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, or Add Health, which has been tracking the same group of people since 1995, when they were ages 12 through 19.
When the study began, 11 percent of the participants were obese. Five years later, 22 percent were. By the time the blood pressure data were taken, three years ago, 37 percent were obese and 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 age range. Pulling data for about 800 young adults from that broader study indicated about 4 percent have high blood pressure.
Eric Whitsel, a UNC researchers involved in the new study, said the earlier one was credible and well-regarded.
The UNC researchers were not able to find a likely cause for the gap. They think the true number is probably somewhere between the two, Harris said. That would still be significantly higher than previously thought.
Add Health is the first large-scale national study aimed at learning more about health issues among young adults, said Harris, its principal investigator.
The revelations about blood pressure, Harris said, underline the importance of studying health in young adults, who are still forming behavior patterns that will affect their health over the course of their lives.
"If we can intervene early in life to reduce risk," she said, "we will avoid health problems for millions of people."
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)