High Blood Pressure—Not Just For Older People

By Janis Jibrin, RD

You’re in your 20s/30s and seem healthy. You might have to worry about getting a job in this shaky economy, but not about high blood pressure, right? Isn’t that something just older people get? While it’s true that risk goes up with age, a new study indicates that a lot more young people might have high blood pressure than previously thought.1 And no matter what your age, it’s a good idea to refresh your knowledge about what you can do to prevent this potentially devastating condition.

If you’re not looking for it, you might never find it; high blood pressure (hypertension) its one of the “silent killer” diseases. While it can cause dizziness, headache, buzzing in the ears and other side effects, often it produces no symptoms. So, a young person who gets a diagnosis who is not symptomatic might think it’s no big deal. But here’s how big a deal it is: Nearly one in three Americans have it, and it’s one of the leading causes of death in this country, according to a recent report from the Institute of Medicine.2 The report’s grim stats: In 2005 hypertension was responsible for “about one in six deaths of U.S. adults and was the single largest risk factor for cardiovascular mortality, accounting for about 45 percent of all cardiovascular deaths.” Amazingly, it’s estimated that for each 1-point rise in systolic blood pressure (the top number) for the mean population, 100,000 more deaths from coronary heart disease occur.3 (See “Blood Pressure by the Numbers” for the definition of hypertension.) It also can cause—and contribute to—kidney disease, vision loss and brain damage.

The common wisdom was that only about 4% of those in their 20s/30s had hypertension. That’s what the large-scale government National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) showed. But another government-sponsored survey, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (nicknamed “Add Health”), which tracks a nationally representative sample of nearly 16,000 children from early teenage years into their early 30s, found that a startling 19 percent of 24– to 32-year-olds had hypertension—nearly one in five. And only 11 percent were aware that they had it.

Which survey results are right? It’s unclear—scientists are trying to test out all the differences between the studies, such as how and where the blood pressure was measured. And the higher prevalence of obesity among the Add Health population (37%) compared to NHANES (28%) may have played a role. Obesity is a trigger for hypertension, as is family history, smoking, a high–salt diet, diabetes and certain other diseases.

So, even if you’re young with no symptoms, get tested. If you have high blood pressure, taking the following steps may help lower it (and do the same even if you don’t have it because these steps may help prevent it):

  • Maintain a healthy weight, because extra pounds strain the heart. In some cases, losing weight is all it takes to lower blood pressure. Easier said than done, especially if you’re overweight, but a worthwhile effort not just for hypertension, but to help prevent other diseases and to look and feel better. The recipes on this website are reasonable in calories and fit right into a weight-reducing plan.
  • Avoid smoking.
  • Limit alcohol to no more than one drink a day for women, two a day for men. A drink is 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces beer or 1.5 ounces of whiskey, gin or other hard liquor. (And if you don’t drink, there’s no reason to.)
  • Take in at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily. A serving is half a cup of chopped vegetables, 2 cups of salad greens.
  • Cap your sodium intake 2,300 mg daily if you don’t have hypertension and 1,500 mg daily if you do. Please reference our New Strategies for Slashing Salt article for tips on reducing your sodium intake.
  • Reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet by substituting non–fat milk or 1% milk, and yogurt for full-fat or 2%; taking the skin off poultry avoiding fatty cuts of meat (like most hamburgers) and avoiding fried food.
  • Reduce your trans fat intake by avoiding foods made with partially hydrogenated oil, such as some baked goods, piecrusts, fried foods and margarines.
  • Exercise for 30 minutes on most days.
  • If you have diabetes, keep your blood sugar under control.
  • Work on reducing stress.


Blood Pressure by the Numbers


Blood pressure readings are measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg) and are given as two numbers—for example, 120 over 80 (written as 120/80 mmHg). One or both of these numbers can be too high.


The top number is your systolic pressure.

  • It is considered high if it is over 140 most of the time.
  • It is considered normal if it is below 120 most of the time.


The bottom number is your diastolic pressure.

  • It is considered high if it is over 90 most of the time.
  • It is considered normal if it is below 80 most of the time.


Pre–hypertension (which raises risk for hypertension) may be considered when your

  • Top number (systolic blood pressure) is between 120 and 139 most of the time, or
  • Bottom number (diastolic blood pressure) is between 80 and 89 most of the time

Adapted from PubMed Health, National Institutes of Health http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001502/


1. Nguyen, Q. C. et al, Epidemiology. Volume 22, Number 4, July 2011 Discordance in National Hypertension Estimates
2. IOM (Institute of Medicine). 2010. A Population-Based Policy and Systems Change Approach to Prevent and Control Hypertension. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
3. Lewington S., Clarke R., Qizilbash N., Peto R, Collins R. Age-specific relevance of usual blood pressure to vascular mortality: a meta-analysis of individual data for one million adults in 61 prospective studies. Lancet. 2002;360:1903–1913.

More Articles You May Find Interesting

The Truth About Emotional Stress and Your Heart

Good news first: “Stress is not a direct cause of heart attack or the buildup of plaque inside your blood vessels,” says cardiologist Stephano Sdringola, M.D., principal investigator for the heart disease research project known...

Low-Fat Milk: It Does a Blood Pressure Good

By Janis Jibrin, M.S., R.D. Switching from whole or two-percent milk to skim or one-percent will save you as many as 70 calories. And calorie cutting isn’t the only benefit you may get from choosing the...

How Much Exercise Do You Need?

By Janis Jibrin, M.S., R.D. While any amount of physical activity is better than none, the leading health authorities (American College of Sports Medicine, U.S. government’s Dietary Guidelines, and others) recommend the following (or something very...