High blood pressure is often seen as a condition of old age, but a new study finds that it’s common among young Americans — especially young Black adults.

The study, of 18- to 44-year-olds in the United States, found that high blood pressure was prevalent across all racial groups: Among both white and Mexican American participants, 22% had the condition.

But young Black adults were hardest-hit, with nearly one-third showing elevated blood pressure.

Compounding the problem, only a minority of young people were getting treatment. And few — no more than 15% — had the condition under “optimal control.”

“People often associate high blood pressure with older people — with their grandparents,” said Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a volunteer expert with the American Heart Association. “But younger people are not immune.”

In fact, there are many reasons they can be vulnerable to high blood pressure, according to Goldberg.

“These findings are not unexpected, given the rising rates of obesity in the U.S.,” she said. “Younger people also tend to eat a lot of fast food, which is high in sodium. And many aren’t getting enough exercise.”

As for the racial disparities, they mirror what past studies have found among middle-aged and older Americans.

“This shows us that racial differences are manifesting early in life,” said study leader Dr. Vibhu Parcha, a clinical research fellow at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Exactly why is not clear. But Parcha said it likely involves many factors — from poverty, to problems accessing health care or healthy foods, to racism-related stress.

And high blood pressure at young ages is particularly concerning, he said, because the consequences may appear earlier as well. They include such serious conditions as heart attack, stroke, heart failure and kidney disease.

Goldberg agreed that “if left undetected and untreated,” high blood pressure in young people can have dire effects.

Unfortunately, Parcha’s team found, few young adults in the study had their elevated blood pressure under good control: Between 10% and 15% of those with the condition had gotten their numbers below 130/80 mm Hg.

“That’s the really scary finding,” Parcha said.

It’s also a frustrating finding, since high blood pressure can be readily diagnosed and treated, both Parcha and Goldberg said.

Lifestyle changes can go a long way, Goldberg pointed out. Regular exercise, a diet low in salt and heavy in fruits and vegetables, and not smoking are key.

But those changes have to be maintained for the long haul, Goldberg said, and that can be the difficult part.

Many people with high blood pressure do need medication along with lifestyle shifts, Parcha said. But with young adults, he added, doctors can sometimes be reluctant to prescribe it — because even they may downplay the risks of elevated blood pressure in a younger person.

That might be one reason so few study participants had their numbers under control, according to Parcha.

The findings, published in the July issue of the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, are based on more than 15,000 participants in an ongoing federal health study.

High blood pressure — defined as 130/80 mm Hg or higher — was “surprisingly” prevalent, Parcha said.

Yet most people were unaware they had the condition, and even fewer had been prescribed medication, the findings showed. Young Black adults actually had the highest treatment rates, at about one-third; meanwhile, 21% of Mexican Americans and 24% of whites were getting treatment.

While few people had the condition well-controlled, two factors boosted the chances: Having health insurance and making regular visits to the doctor.

That suggests improving young people’s access to affordable health care would help, according to Parcha. It also underscores the importance of routine health check-ups, regardless of age.

“Sometimes young people feel there’s no need to see a doctor because they feel good,” Parcha said.

But, Goldberg said, high blood pressure typically causes no symptoms — so feeling fine is no guarantee a person’s blood pressure is normal.

More information

The American Heart Association has more on high blood pressure.