Kristen Pessalano just turned 23, but has been on blood pressure medication for more than two years. Pessalano, a New Yorker who works in public relations, found out she had high blood pressure while getting a physical before heading abroad for an internship.
"[I] got upset when I first found out because I automatically associated it with people who are overweight or old," said Pessalano. "I would have never associated high blood pressure with someone my age, especially when I appeared to be totally healthy."
Pessalano has a lot of company, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The report finds that while the percentage of Americans who have high blood pressure has remained steady over the past decade at 30 percent, the number of younger adults -- ages 18 to 39 -- who have high blood pressure and take medication to treat it has significantly increased from 27.6 percent in 1999 to 2000 to 49.1 percent in 2007 to 2008.
Doctors say they're not surprised because of other health problems that plague younger adults.
"I'm not surprised that more and more young people are being treated for high blood pressure since the incidence of obesity, a contributing cause for high blood pressure, is increasing in this age group," said Dr. Randal Thomas, a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
"With increasing obesity and diabetes in younger populations, clinicians may be more aggressive about recognizing risk factors for cardiovascular disease, like hypertension, and treating it," said Dr. Carol Horowitz, associate professor of medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
Although the news that she had high blood pressure was unexpected to Pessalano, the CDC report found most people with high blood pressure have become more aware of the condition, which is something physicians say they've noticed in their own practices.
"[I]ndividuals are taking their own health issues more seriously and noticing the increased blood pressure readings," said Dr. R. Scott Wright, also a cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic.
Younger People Under Treatment a Mixed Blessing
Doctors have mixed feelings about the increasing number of younger adults who take blood pressure medication. They're pleased that the problem is under control, but also wonder if enough emphasis is being placed on non-medical approaches, such as diet and exercise.
"Non-drug therapy should be the foundation of treatment," said Dr. Domenic Sica, professor of medicine and pharmacology at Virginia Commonwealth University. "However, the use of drug therapy provides a complementary strategy that can provide a positive incentive for patients to adhere to lifestyle measures if it is a means to an end of possibly coming off of drug therapy."
"It's not as ideal to use medications as to use lifestyle therapy, in my opinion, but at least the blood pressure is being lowered and their risk of heart attack and stroke is being reduced," said Thomas.
Pessalano said her doctor recommended lowering her salt intake, but put her on medication right away. She also goes to the gym regularly and drinks a lot of water.
Doctors say lifestyle modifications such as lowering salt intake and weight control measures are vital for people of all age groups to control hypertension, but say not nearly enough people -- especially in the younger age group -- are getting the message about healthier habits.
"[D]octors are not well-trained in lifestyle modifications and do not spend a lot of time with patients on these strategies," said Horowitz.
"The key to most public health efforts like those to control high blood pressure must begin with the younger population if we want to ever actually reduce the [number of people newly diagnosed with] high blood pressure over time. This will require new methods of educating and influencing healthy behaviors in the younger population," said Thomas.
Pessalano agrees that young people need to be more aware of the dangers of hypertension and that it can happen to people who are in her age group.
"I had no idea how serious hypertension could be until my doctor sat down and explained the effect high blood pressure can have on the heart and arteries when left untreated," she said.
Knowing that, she says she's glad she's taking steps to protect her health.
"I get a little frustrated that I have to remember to take it every day, especially when I'm in a rush in the morning. But in the big scheme of things, it's just a little pill; it doesn't inconvenience my life and is an easy and effective way to control my blood pressure."