If you’re under the impression high blood pressure is only hazardous at an advanced age, think again. A recent study conducted at the Duke Clinical Research Institute has revealed that people between the ages of 35 and 45 who have even slightly higher cholesterol levels than normal also have a significantly higher risk for heart disease compared to healthy adults with lower cholesterol levels.

"The number of years with elevated cholesterol, or 'lipid years,' can affect you in a similar way to the number of 'pack years' you have had as a smoker," lead researcher Dr. Ann Marie Navar-Boggan said. "It shows that what we're doing to our blood vessels in our 20s, 30s, and 40s is laying the foundation for disease that will present itself later in our lives. If we wait until our 50s or 60s to think about cardiovascular disease prevention, the cat's already out of the bag."

Navar-Boggan and her colleagues gathered data using the Framingham Heart Study, a National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) study started back in 1948 for the purpose of identifying risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease. Researchers examined medical records for 1,478 adults with high cholesterol but no signs of heart disease by age 55. Participants were followed for 20 years, and researchers defined high cholesterol non-HDL “good” cholesterol of 160 mg/dL or higher. 

Around 40 percent of the participants were affected by high blood pressure for at least 10 years by the age of 55. Their risk for heart disease was 16.5 percent over the next 15 years compared to 4.4 percent among those without high blood pressure. For every 10 years each participant was exposed to high blood pressure his or her risk for heart disease increased by 39 percent. Participants with high cholesterol also didn’t respond well to statins treatment. Statins are a class of medication used to lower blood pressure by blocking substances that our bodies need to make cholesterol. 

"The effect is perhaps even stronger among adults who are otherwise healthy. So even if you control everything else in your life — you don't smoke, your blood pressure and weight are normal, and you don't have diabetes — having elevated cholesterol over many years can still cause problems in the long run."

According to the American Heart Association, normal blood pressure is generally considered less than 120/80 mm Hg. Although one pressure reading around 140/90 mm Hg does not mean a person has high blood pressure, continuing high blood pressure readings usually require a treatment plan. Navar-Boggan hopes findings from this study will highlight the need for more research on the long-term effectiveness and safety of statins. Less serious and serious side effects reported by some people whose bodies cannot tolerate statins include muscle and joint aches, nauseas, diarrhea, constipation, and liver damage. 

"It's never too soon for young adults to talk with their doctors about a comprehensive strategy for heart health, first and foremost focusing on diet and exercise," Navar-Boggan added. "Our study suggests, though, that young adults who cannot control cholesterol with diet and exercise alone may benefit from medication earlier in life."

Source: Peterson E, D’Agostino R, Neely B, Sniderman A, Pencina M, Navar-Boggan A. Hyperlipidemia in Early Adulthood Increases Long-Term Risk of Coronary Heart Disease. Circulation. 2015.