Unsafe Blood Pressure Rates Nearly Double in 40 Years

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Global rates of high blood pressure – often called the “silent killer” – have soared over the past 40 years, and the disease is now taking a toll on a new population, say researchers from Imperial College London.

Worldwide, more than 1.13 billion people now live with the disease, according to the study appearing in The Lancet.

A woman in Poland gets her blood pressure measured. Image Courtesy: Kris D from Metropolia Silesia, Upper Silesia ( Oberschlesien ), Blood pressure measurement, Poland, CC BY-SA 2.0
A woman in Poland gets her blood pressure measured. Image Courtesy: Kris D from Metropolia Silesia, Upper Silesia ( Oberschlesien ), Blood pressure measurement, Poland, CC BY-SA 2.0

While the overall numbers have skyrocketed, scientists have uncovered a key socioeconomic change in disease rates, which may shift the onus of public health efforts. Today’s high blood pressure sufferers tend to live in low-income countries, a reversal of fortune from nearly half a century ago when the disease hit wealthy areas the hardest.

“High blood pressure is no longer related to affluence – as it was in 1975 – but is now a major health issue linked with poverty,” said Majid Ezzati, senior author of the study and a professor at the Imperial College London’s school of public health.

High blood pressure earned the moniker “the silent killer” because it has no symptoms but remains a serious concern – when left untreated, elevated blood pressure can cause damage to the arteries, heart and other organs, and it’s the leading global cause of cardiovascular disease and kidney disease.

U.S. Among the Countries With the Lowest Rates

The blood pressure divide spanned the globe. Several areas – South Korea, Canada, the United States, Peru, the United Kingdom, Singapore and Australia – featured the lowest rates of high blood pressure with a prevalence of less than 13 percent in women and 19 percent in men.

On the opposite side, major high blood pressure pockets were found in Asia. Almost a quarter, or 23 percent, of the world’s population with high blood pressure lives in south Asia, and another 21 percent live in east Asia. In China alone, about 226 million people are affected by the dangerous condition; more than 200 million live in India.

Researchers also noted high prevalence among several Eastern European countries, including Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary and Slovenia.

From 1975 to 2015, the number of adults worldwide with high blood pressure rose from 594 million to 1.13 billion.

Unlocking the Major Shift in Rates

The reason for change in health status among populations remains unclear, though several theories may explain the shift, note the researchers.

“Increasing evidence suggests poor nutrition in early life years increases risk of the high blood pressure in later life, which may explain the growing problem in poor countries,” explained Ezzati.

The researchers also suggest that high blood pressure is addressed and treated more frequently in high-income countries, which can lead to effective disease management through lifestyle and medication interventions.

Leading health bodies, including the World Health Organization, are currently seeking to reduce disease incidence – and this study shows they have their work cut out for them, note the researchers.

“We need economic means and regulation to improve access to high quality food, especially fruits and vegetables, and reduce excessive salt in food. We also need a stronger healthcare system, to identify people with high blood pressure earlier, and improve access to treatment and medication. Without these measures, the world is unlikely to achieve the World Health Organization’s target of reducing the proportion of people with high blood pressure by 25 percent by 2025.”

An interactive map of disease rates is available from the NCD Risk Factor Collaboration.

Richard Scott
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.