The number of Americans who have high blood pressure has increased dramatically in the past decade, with almost one-third of adults now suffering from the life-threatening condition, federal researchers reported yesterday.
A new analysis of data collected by the federal government found that the number of U.S. adults who have hypertension increased from about 50 million in the period from 1988 to 1994 to at least 65 million in the period from 1999 to 2000.
Although the study was not designed to examine the cause of the increase, the trend is probably being driven primarily by the rapidly rising number of elderly people and those who are overweight, experts said.
Whatever the cause, the trend is disturbing because high blood pressure can lead to a wide range of serious health problems -- including the nation's biggest killers, heart attacks and strokes.
"From a public and health professional perspective, it is important to be aware of high blood pressure, to have blood pressure checked regularly, and if blood pressure is elevated, to initiate appropriate counseling and treatment," said Larry E. Fields, senior executive adviser to the assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, who led the study. Blood pressure rates had been dropping in the United States since the 1960s, but researchers last year discovered that trend had reversed in the early 1990s. The new analysis, published in the journal Hypertension, represents the first attempt to determine how common high blood pressure has become.
In the new study, researchers analyzed data collected from the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a large, ongoing federal survey of health measures.
Fields and his colleagues concluded that the total hypertension prevalence rate was 31.3 percent, which translates into about 65.2 million American adults ages 18 and older. That is a 30 percent increase from the period 1988 to 1994, when the number was about 50 million. High blood pressure is defined as 140 over 90, or above.
High blood pressure is divided about equally between men and women, with about 35 million women and 30 million men suffering from the condition. Blacks tend to have the highest rate -- 39.8 percent -- followed by Mexican Americans at 28.7 percent and non-Hispanic whites at 27.2 percent.
"The increased prevalence of high blood pressure represents a reversal of previous declines observed between 1960 and 1990, suggesting that previous beneficial population influences -- for example, increased availability of fruits and vegetables -- have been overwhelmed by negative influences -- for example, increased obesity," said David C. Goff Jr. of Wake Forest University Health Sciences, speaking on behalf of the American Heart Association. "These findings have serious implications for health care policy and public health policy."
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recently created a medical classification known as pre-hypertension, which is intended to encourage doctors to alert patients that they are at risk of developing high blood pressure and should take steps to prevent it. Many people can reduce their blood pressure by losing weight, eating better and exercising. Drugs can also help.
"We hope that this new data will serve as a wakeup call to physicians, other health care professionals and the public. More aggressive prevention and treatment of high blood pressure is needed," NHLBI acting Director Barbara Alving said in a statement released yesterday.