Almost half of the U.S. adult population has high blood pressure under a new guideline set by heart experts. People with blood pressure readings of 130/80 or higher will now be considered to have the condition. The old threshold was 140/90.
That means about 14% more people will be diagnosed with high blood pressure, the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology announced Monday. The greatest impact will be among younger people. The incidence of high blood pressure is expected to triple for men under 45 and double for women under 45, according to a report on the guidelines published in two academic journals.
The guidelines call for doctors to intervene earlier to stop further increases in blood pressure and complications from hypertension. These are the first new blood pressure guidelines in 14 years.
High blood pressure is a potentially deadly condition. After smoking, it's linked to the second-highest number of preventable heart disease and stroke deaths. Blood pressure levels between 130-139/80-89 have double the risk of cardiovascular complications compared to normal blood pressure levels, said Dr. Paul K. Whelton, lead author of the new guidelines.
"We want to be straight with people — if you already have a doubling of risk, you need to know about it," he said. "It doesn't mean you need medication, but it's a yellow light that you need to be lowering your blood pressure, mainly with non-drug approaches."
Elevated blood pressure can damage blood vessels. The risk increases as you get into your 40s, Whelton said.
What to do about high blood pressure
Blood pressure can sometimes rise in a medical setting, but not in everyday life, so the guidelines recommend home blood pressure monitoring. Working to lower high blood pressure can help stave off health threats like heart attack and stroke. The American Heart Association recommends a few changes people can make to control their blood pressure:
• Eat a well-balanced, low-salt diet including lots of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts.
• Limit alcohol. No more than two drinks a day for men and no more than one drink a day for women.
• Exercise regularly.
• Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight puts extra strain on your heart.
• Take your medications properly. Listen to your physician's recommendations.
High blood pressure & your money
Believe it or not, the new blood pressure guidelines could impact your finances. Life insurers use health information to determine how risky it is to cover a given customer — and how much to charge them. Blood pressure is one of the factors they look at.
It's not clear when or if insurance carriers will adjust their guidelines for blood pressure based on the new research, said Emily Strobelberger, operations team lead for Policygenius.
"But if they do, it will likely affect rate classes and pricing," she said.
Let's say someone with a blood pressure of 142/82 qualifies for the best-class life insurance with the lowest premiums. If insurers adjust their best-class guidelines to reflect the new guideline of 130/80, that person may no longer qualify for the best-class rate.
"We can't say for sure if carriers will adopt these new guidelines, but if they do, I think a lot of people could be impacted," Strobelberger said.
Steven Weisbart, senior vice president and chief economist for the Insurance Information Institute, expects life insurers to adjust quickly. Insurance companies act on real-world risk, and the research behind the new guidelines shows a link between lower blood pressure readings and lower death rates. So for anyone whose blood pressure is on the border of the new guidelines who's considering life insurance, it may be wise to act now before carriers adjust their standards.
"In effect, right now if your blood pressure is on the margins of the new guidelines, I'd say life insurance is on sale for you," Weisbart said.
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