Young adulthood emerges as a key time for good health in later life

High blood pressure and cholesterol in your 20s and 30s are linked to heart attacks and strokes later on, according to new research


New research has suggested that raised blood pressure and cholesterol in early adulthood raise the risk of coronary heart disease, heart failure and stroke in later life. US researchers pooled the data from six major heart health studies and found that even mildly raised blood pressure and cholesterol under the age of 40 raised the risks, regardless of their levels after 40. 

The results show that early adulthood is a key time for looking after your heart health, and highlights the importance of starting healthy habits during childhood. 

What did this study involve? 

The researchers pooled the data from six major studies exploring risk factors for heart health. They included 36,000 people in total from age 18 and upwards, with information on their health recorded over many years. 

They looked at blood pressure and cholesterol levels both before and after 40 to see how they were linked to disease in later life. 

What did the results show? 

The results, published in The American College of Cardiology, showed that even mildly raised blood pressure and cholesterol were linked to heart disease, heart failure and stroke.

In adults under 40: 

  • LDL cholesterol (also known as bad cholesterol) of 100 mg/dl or higher raised the risk of CHD by two thirds (64%)
  • Systolic blood pressure (the top number) of 130mmHg and over raised the risk of heart failure by a third (37%), compared to blood pressure less than 120mmHg
  • Diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) of 80mmHg and over had a 21% increased risk. 

The amount of time that people had high blood pressure or cholesterol for was also important – the longer they had raised numbers, the greater the risk. And raised blood pressure and cholesterol over the age of 40 also raised the risk of disease. 

Why was this study done? 

The researchers wanted to explore the effect of blood pressure and cholesterol levels in early adulthood independently from older adulthood. 

Most studies looking into the causes of heart disease include people from the age of 40 or 50 upwards, so there is limited information about younger adulthood. By pooling the existing studies, the researchers were able to include as many younger people as possible. 

What does this study add?

Raised blood pressure and cholesterol are well known major risk factors for disease. Previous research has already linked raised numbers in early adulthood to damaged arteries in mid-life, and serious diseased blood vessels later on. 

This study adds that: 

  • even mildly raised cholesterol and blood pressure in early adulthood matter
  • and they matter regardless of their levels in mid life
  • the number of years they are raised is also important.  

Unfortunately, despite including younger people, there were still limited numbers of people in their 20s and 30s. So this study can’t be considered proof, but does add to the growing evidence. 

This study isn’t grounds for using medications in early adulthood, but is an argument for greater efforts to improve the lifestyles of children and young adults. 

What else do we know about blood pressure in young people?

There is a growing body of evidence showing that high blood pressure is on the rise in younger people, and is causing disease later on. 

  • High blood pressure on the rise in children. A major new review of all the research on blood pressure in children found that  5% of children aged 19 and under have high blood pressure globally, and another 9.7% have pre-high blood pressure. The number of children affected has been growing over the last two decades, rising by around 75% between 2000 and 2015. The study was published in respected journal JAMA Pediatrics on 7 October, and our CEO Katharine was quoted in the Daily MailFind out more. 
  • High blood pressure is becoming more common in young adults. A recent study by LloydsPharmacy found that high blood pressure and cholesterol are becoming worryingly common in younger people. 140,000 people were tested in UK pharmacies and the results showed that two thirds (66%) of people under 35 have high or pre-high blood pressure, and a third (35%) have above average or high cholesterol. 
  • Strokes and heart attacks are happening earlier.New figures also show strokes and heart attacks are already becoming more common in younger people. There has been a 4% rise in deaths from diseases of the heart and blood vessels in the under 65s in the last five years according to new research from the BHF. 
  • High blood pressure early on linked to poorer brain health later.As well as heart disease, raised blood pressure in early adulthood has recently been linked to poorer brain health. A study in Lancet Neurology found raised blood pressure during your 30s and 40s was linked to a reduction in brain size. This does not prove a link with dementia, but the link is being explored because brain size tends to be smaller in people with dementia, and high blood pressure has already been linked with the disease. 

Katharine Jenner, CEO of Blood Pressure UK, says: 

“This study adds to the body of evidence showing that your blood pressure and cholesterol numbers matter no matter what your age. Your lifestyle habits and preferences track from childhood to adulthood, and affect your health both now and in the future. The Government’s current Childhood Obesity Plan does nothing to redress this imbalance and it needs to be reviewed immediately. 

“At the same time, there’s also lots of evidence showing that any healthy changes you make will have a positive effect on your health no matter what your age. So, it is good to start young, but if that’s not possible, don’t be put off. It’s never too late to adopt a healthy diet and lifestyle.”

Hemini Bharadia, Marketing Manager at Blood Pressure UK adds:  

“High blood pressure is becoming incredibly common in young adults, leading to heart attacks and strokes very young. But they are preventable. If you don’t Know Your Numbers!, get a blood pressure check today to take control of your health.” 

Read the paper online from the Journal of the American College of Cardiology