While still small, the number of young people afflicted with high blood pressure is increasing
Think of someone with high blood pressure, and the image of a gasping, older “uncle” figure, sitting in a chair, clasping his chest with one hand and reaching for his pills with the other, comes to mind.
However, high blood pressure is not an ailment that afflicts only those above 40.
Instead, cardiologists are seeing an increase in the number of youngsters in their 20s and 30s with worrying levels of the condition.
High blood pressure is also known as hypertension and can cause strokes, kidney and heart failure and heart attacks.
While the number of younger patients under 40 is still relatively low, cardiologists say today’s increasingly affluent lifestyles are taking their toll, alongside the usual factors such as a genetic predisposition.
Indulging in such lifestyles is partly to blame as we “eat out more” and “eat a lot of processed food” where the food is more savoury and the salt intake is higher, says consultant cardiologist Dr Eric Hong of The Heart Specialists Medical Group at Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre.
He said: “If you eat home-cooked food, you can control what you put in your food and cut down on your salt intake.” Salt is not good for those with high blood pressure as it draws more fluid into the blood vessels, which in turn adds to the blood pressure on the heart.
One of these younger sufferers is Mr David Zha, who is 29 but was diagnosed with a high blood pressure of 150/96 in February. A healthy blood pressure level for adults is around 120/80. The figure measures the pressure of the heart as it contracts and relaxes.
Mr Zha went to the doctor after experiencing persistent headaches, lightheadedness and a flushed face that felt like “all the blood was rushing into my head”.
“I was very worried when I found out. High blood pressure is usually associated with the elderly, no one expects it when they are in their 20s,” said the IT analyst who has always led an active lifestyle, playing tennis or jogging at
least once a week, depending on his work schedule.
He blames his early affliction on his gene pool. All four of his grandparents were diagnosed with high blood pressure. His late father, who was diagnosed in his 40s, was prescribed medication but died of a heart attack two years ago at age 64.
“I thought if I ate healthily and exercised, I could avoid it,” said Mr Zha, who is married. He has since upped his running regime to twice a week and increased his distance to 5km, up from 2.4km.
Fried food is also a no-no, and he now eats more vegetables and less meat. This is because he needs to cut down on saturated and total fat that might clog up arteries and increase his blood pressure. He is also conscious of the amount of salt he takes.
According to the most recent National Health Survey in 2004, the prevalence of high blood pressure among those aged 30 to 39 stands at 8.8 per cent. For those aged 18 to 29, the prevalence is at 4.2 per cent.
The numbers are small but Dr Hong believes “the true prevalence could be higher”, which will be revealed as more younger people go for health screening checks before taking part in the many triathlons and biathlons being held these days, or simply have better health awareness.
“This would mean that people who are more predisposed to hypertension can take the necessary primary preventive measures before going on to pharmaceutical intervention,” added Dr Hong, who prescribed Mr Zha with medication to control his high blood pressure.
Aside from controlling diet and exercising, he said there are several medications available to treat high blood pressure, but advised that it would be best to seek a doctor’s opinion for personalised therapy.
Although early detection and medication can be life-savers, prevention is best.
Dr Goh Ping Ping, the chief of Changi General Hospital’s cardiology department, notes that obesity, stress levels and high alcohol intake can lead to increased blood pressure.
She also warned that high blood pressure easily goes unnoticed as it is a “silent killer” that usually presents “no symptoms” before a stroke or heart attack strikes.
However, she noted that since hypertension incidences are much lower in younger age groups, high blood pressure could also be a warning of underlying health problems such as kidney and heart problems.
Raffles Hospital’s specialist in cardiology, associate professor Abdul Razakjr, says a lifestyle change can help bring down blood pressure.
Dr Abdul, whose youngest patient is a 27-year-old man who is obese, smokes and drinks alcohol regularly, said cutting down on smoking, learning to cope with stress, taking regular cardiovascular exercise and having a low salt and low fat diet is a good start.
While Mr Zha is doing all he can to stay healthy, he worries about the effect on his wife. He said: “I feel sorry in her case because she has to take care of me and worry for me.”