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Here's a worrisome trend: high blood pressure among young adults. The findings, by researchers at the University of North Carolina, appear online in the journal Epidemiology. As NPR's Patty Neighmond reports, this is the first, large, long-term study to find such high rates of hypertension among such young people.

PATTY NEIGHMOND: Sociologist Kathleen Mullan Harris is analyzing a number of health surveys that were mandated by Congress in the mid-'90s. The idea was to examine the health and habits of teenagers, those teens are now young adults between 24 and 32, and many of them don't even know they have high blood pressure.

Professor KATHLEEN MULLAN HARRIS (Sociology, University of North Carolina): It's asymptomatic. You know, there aren't really any outward symptoms. People don't feel any different, even though they have high blood pressure.

NEIGHMOND: In the latest analysis, Mullan Harris found the rate of high blood pressure among young adults, alarming.

Prof. MULLAN HARRIS: Nearly one in five, or 19 percent of young adults had high blood pressure.

NEIGHMOND: High blood pressure is risky enough when you're middle aged. But when it starts young, in your twenties or even younger, it can set into play a series of dangerous consequences. Dr. Steven Hirschfeld is an official with the National Institutes of Health and a pediatrician.

Dr. STEVEN HIRSCHFELD (National Institutes of Health, Pediatrician): Blood pressure causes changes in the structure of the body, and those changes in the structure of the body are generally irreversible and they compromise the function of many organs and many systems.

NEIGHMOND: Which makes the body more vulnerable to sudden problems, like ruptured blood vessels, blood clots, and internal bleeding; and diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

The researchers say while the findings are disturbing, they're not exactly surprising. The majority of young adults surveyed were either overweight or obese, which is known to cause high blood pressure. Sociologist Mullan Harris:

Prof. MULLAN HARRIS: IN 1995, 11 percent of a sample was obese. When we followed them up, five to six years later, that doubled. And then we followed them up five to six years later - 37 percent are obese.

MEIGHMOND: And many of them were simply overweight. Overall, 67 percent were overweight or obese. That pretty much reflects national trends among all U.S. adults.

Now it's important to note this isn't the first study of high blood pressure among that 24 to 32 year old age group. Other federal surveys have found hypertension, but at far lower rates. So researchers and federal health officials agree more study of young adults, in particular, is needed to figure out exactly how big of problem this is. But Dr. Hirschfeld says any hypertension is a problem and should be prevented.

Dr. HIRSCHFELD: Everyone should have checkups and have their weight, their blood pressure, their blood sugar, and other measures of their general health checked regularly, no matter how old they are.

NEIGHMOND: Part of the problem is that your typical twenty-something may not visit the doctor on as routine basis, or even monitor their blood pressure. Hirschfeld says that should change, especially if they're overweight. And steps could be taken to make it easier to check up on your own health. Organizations could follow the lead of pharmacies, for example, by installing free blood pressure checks at airports, supermarkets, or shopping malls, in much the same way flu shots are readily available nationwide.

Patty Neighmond, NPR News.

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