Fears over hidden cases of high blood pressure in young people

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Wednesday 3rd May 2023

Researchers have raised concerns over a growing number of hidden cases of high blood pressure among young people in England. Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that approximately 170,000 young people in England have high blood pressure without even knowing. The data covers individuals aged between 16 and 24 years old. The figure of 170,000 equates to around 5% of young males and 1% of young females. 

High blood pressure doesn’t usually cause noticeable symptoms to begin with but if it is left untreated, it can cause significant damage to the heart and the blood vessels that carry blood to and from the heart. Known as hypertension, high blood pressure is a leading risk factor for heart attacks and strokes, accounting for around 50% of cases in the UK. Most commonly, high blood pressure is associated with older people and those who are overweight or have high cholesterol or a sedentary lifestyle. However, it can affect people of all ages. As the symptoms are not always easy to spot, health experts encourage all adults to undergo regular blood pressure checks. Blood pressure checks take a few minutes and they produce a reading instantly. They are available from GP surgeries and local pharmacies. Individuals who have a high risk of developing hypertension and those with family history of high blood pressure should have frequent checks.

A blood pressure reading measures the force with which blood flows around the body. The healthy range is between 90 over 60mmHg and 120 over 80mmHg. High blood pressure is generally considered to be over 140/90mmHg. Chris Shine, from the ONS, explained that researchers undertook new projects to identify high-risk individuals who have not been diagnosed with high blood pressure. They found that there were a substantial number of young people who would otherwise be considered healthy who had the condition. Estimates suggest that up to a third of UK adults could have high blood pressure, but many are unaware. 

The most significant risk factors for high blood pressure include being overweight, having a sedentary lifestyle, smoking, drinking excessively and having a poor diet. ONS research showed that young men are more likely to have hypertension that has not been diagnosed than young women. Data revealed that the rate of undiagnosed cases was 66% in males and 26% in females aged between 16 and 24 in England compared to 55% of males and 44% of females in the 25-34 age group and 17% of males and 21% of females aged over 75. 

Researchers analysed data taken from the Health Survey for England, which checked the blood pressure of 20,000 people, including 1,500 teenagers and young adults. The survey findings indicated that 4% of women and 7% of men aged between 16 and 24 had hypertension. Among these individuals, 26% of women and 66% of men had undiagnosed high blood pressure.  Dr Pauline Swift, from Blood Pressure UK, suggested that the research provides useful information for young people and healthcare professionals. Some of the risk factors for high blood pressure, such as ethnicity and age, cannot be controlled, but many can, including diet and activity levels. Young people should be aware of the risks of high blood pressure and steps that can be taken to lower risks. Eating a healthy, balanced diet, moderating salt intake and embracing an active lifestyle can all help to reduce the risk of hypertension.  Most deaths that are caused by high blood pressure in the UK could be prevented, Dr Swift explained. If people are aware of the causes and risk factors and ways they can manage risks, this could help to save thousands of lives. 

Regular blood pressure checks are an effective way to monitor blood pressure and ensure that anyone who has high blood pressure gets the treatment they need. In many cases, it is possible to reduce blood pressure by making lifestyle changes, including being more active and following a healthy eating plan. If this is not viable, other treatments, such as medication, will be recommended.