MONDAY, Aug. 23, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Older, heavier and sedentary, more and more Americans are suffering from high blood pressure, the latest government report shows.
And while the numbers in the report are four years old, there are reasons to believe the trend is continuing, one expert said.
From survey periods 1988-94 to 1999-2000, the number of adults in the United States with high blood pressure increased 30 percent, to 65 million, according to the latest National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).
The findings are published Aug. 24 in Hypertension: Journal of the American Heart Association.
Hypertension is the formal medical name for high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart attack, stroke and other cardiovascular problems. Normal blood pressure is defined as a reading of 120 over 80, while hypertension is any reading of 140 over 90 or higher. In-between readings are described as borderline hypertension.
The last NHANES counted 50 million adult Americans with high blood pressure, said Dr. Larry E. Fields, senior executive advisor to the assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, and lead author of the journal report.
The new survey wasn't designed to determine the causes of the increase, Fields said, but a decade-long increase in the number of obese and sedentary Americans is a potential major contributor. The aging of America is another important risk factor, since the incidence of high blood pressure increases with age.
Right now, there's no solid information about whether hypertension rates have continued to grow over the last four years, Fields said.
But Dr. David C. Goff, professor of public health sciences and internal medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, said that at least one trend doesn't look encouraging.
"More current data on obesity suggest that Americans continue to get fatter, so I suspect that blood pressure levels will continue to go up," said Goff, a spokesman for the American Heart Association.
There is general agreement that overeating and lack of exercise is leading to higher rates of high blood pressure among Americans, he said.
"We are taking in too many calories and not doing enough physical activity to counter that," Goff said.
The changing nature of the workplace and the suburbanization of America play important roles, too, he said.
"Mechanization has removed a lot of physical labor from work," Goff said. "We don't walk as much as we used to. Many neighborhoods have no sidewalks and no destinations in close proximity to the home, so that we drive cars to get to the post office or grocery."
The new NHANES report was based on examination of 4,531 people 18 years of age and older. Extrapolating the results of those findings to the total U.S. population produced an estimate that 4.4 million Americans ages 18 to 34 have high blood pressure, with the numbers rising fairly steadily with age: 8 million in the 35-44 group; at least 12.7 million in the 45-54 group; 12.7 million in the 55-54 group; 13.2 million in the 65-74 group, and 14.1 million for those 75 and older.
Overall, 28.7 percent of American women and 28.3 percent of men suffer from hypertension, the survey showed. The incidence is notably higher for African-Americans: 38.8 percent.
The findings emphasize the need for people to have their blood pressure checked regularly, Fields said. The American Heart Association recommends a blood pressure check at least once every two years for everyone, and more often for people with known risk factors such as obesity, smoking and diabetes, he said.
"The rising trend in hypertension has important consequences for the public health of this nation," said Dr. Barbara Alving, acting director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, in a statement. "Fortunately, we can do something about it."
For example, new prehypertension guidelines -- covering readings at or above 120/80 but below 140/90 -- "was created to alert people to their risk of developing high blood pressure so they could make lifestyle changes to avoid developing the condition," Alving said. "These changes include losing excess weight, becoming physically active, limiting alcoholic beverages and following a heart-healthy eating plan, including cutting back on salt and other forms of sodium."
To learn more about high blood pressure and what to do about it, visit the American Heart Association.