Mild high blood pressure in young adults linked to heart problems later in life

Howard LeWine, M.D.
Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor, Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

Editor’s note: Since 2000, Dr. Howard LeWine and other other experts from Harvard Health Publications and Harvard Medical School have been writing daily News Reviews for Sadly, InteliHealth shuts down tomorrow. This is the final (4,255th) news review written by the Harvard Health team.

Young adults with even slightly above-normal blood pressure may be more likely to have heart problems later in life, according to a new study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. The study focused on nearly 2,500 men and women who were 18 to 30 years old when the study began. Researchers kept track of them for 25 years. During that time, the researchers took closer looks at the participants’ health seven times. The check-ups included blood pressure readings. Near the end of the study, participants also had heart imaging tests. Some people had slightly above-normal blood pressure (120/80 to 139/89) when they were still under age 30. This level is not high enough to be considered high blood pressure. It is known as prehypertension. But the researchers found that people with above-normal blood pressure were more likely to have signs of heart disease in middle age. In particular, they were more likely to have problems with the left ventricle of the heart.

What is the doctor’s reaction?

Many years ago, high blood pressure (hypertension) was defined as a blood pressure of 140/90 or higher. However, during the last 20 years, multiple long-term studies have shown that blood pressures higher than 120/80 are linked with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

That’s why we have the term prehypertension. It describes people with blood pressures between 120/80 and 139/89.

The results of this study suggest that prehypertension begins to influence heart function in the early years of adult life. These researchers looked at a large group of men and women, ages 18 to 30. During the next 25 years, those with prehypertension were more likely to develop signs of heart disease.

Most of them did not have symptoms. The heart abnormalities were seen on echocardiograms.

What changes can I make now?

Get your blood pressure checked regularly. Even if it is less than 120/80, check your pressure at least once per year. And definitely don’t let more than 2 years go by without getting it checked.

You don’t need to go see a doctor. Many drug stores have blood pressure machines you can use for free. Take advantage of any free health screenings at work or in your community.

If your blood pressure is higher than 120/80, even on a single reading, take it seriously. And that’s true even if you are young.

By making lifestyle changes now, you can lower the risk that your blood pressure will rise with age. And that means a lower chance of heart problems and stroke later on.

If you smoke, quitting is the top priority. Diet and exercise also work well to keep blood pressure in check.

  • Strive to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Make vegetables and fruits half of every meal. Potatoes don’t count as a vegetable.
  • The other half should contain healthy protein and whole-grain carbohydrates.
  • Reduce salt intake. Use a little less salt every day, and soon you will enjoy food just as much as before.
  • Drink water instead of sugary beverages.
  • Stay physically active as much as you can all day.
  • Get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week.

What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?

Some young people with prehypertension probably could benefit from drug treatment to lower blood pressure. Right now we don’t know which ones. Future research can be designed to help find out who they are by looking at their genetic profile or other personal factors.

Related Information: Controlling Your Blood Pressure


  1. Steve

    I am so glad to see this information published. As someone diagnosed with high blood pressure in my mid forties, I wish I had been checking it more frequently a long time ago. Looking back, I think I had prehypertension possibly in my late 20s and early 30s, that was just written off as “white coat syndrome”.