A new study finds the average blood pressure in Europe is 136/83, compared to 127/77 in the United States and Canada.
High blood pressure -- a reading in excess of 140/90 -- is more prevalent on this side of the Atlantic than cardiologists would like, with 28 percent of Americans and 27 percent of Canadians afflicted with the condition. But those numbers look downright rosy compared to several European countries: 55 percent in Germany, 49 percent in Finland, 47 percent in Spain, 42 percent in England and 38 percent in Sweden and Italy.
The study appears in the May 14 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
One European country notably missing from the survey is France. With what some might regard as typical insouciance, the French haven't done the kind of national study that could give solid information on blood pressure levels, says study co-author Dr. Richard S. Cooper. He is chairman of the department of preventive medicine and epidemiology at Loyola University Stritch School of Medicine in Illinois.
However, Cooper notes, while the French have a low rate of heart disease, their risk of stroke matches ours.
For the other countries, Cooper and his colleagues got the numbers from national studies conducted in the 1990s -- the first of their kind, Cooper notes.
High blood pressure is a major risk factor for both heart disease and stroke. And the numbers on stroke clearly show the transatlantic difference. The European stroke mortality rate is 41.2 per 100,000 people; over here it's 27.6 per 100,000, the study says.
While the study wasn't designed to detect the reason for the difference in high blood pressure rates, Cooper says his best bet is that it is due to diet. "Treatment rates [for high blood pressure] are higher in the United States and Canada, but the treatment rate is not the underlying factor," he says.
But Dr. Robert A. Phillips, chairman of the department of medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and president of the eastern chapter of the American Society of Hypertension, disagrees that diet is the deciding factor. Instead, he points to a long-running campaign to educate Americans about the dangers of high blood pressure.
"Europeans have taken a laissez-faire attitude toward high blood pressure for half a century," Phillips says. "The United States started an education program in the 1970s, with a tremendous effort to educate the public and physicians about the dangers of hypertension."
The result, Phillips says, is "one of the greatest victories we've had in western medicine, the control of high blood pressure and reduction of heart attack, stroke and renal disease."
Despite such advances as the creation of new treatments for high blood pressure, there is a long way to go, Phillips says. Only 30 percent of Americans with high blood pressure are getting treatment to reduce pressure to a maximum of 140/90, the desired safety level, he says. "We want to get it up to 60 percent," he says.