Why You May Want To Question "Normal" Blood Pressure Readings

Doctor Showing Lab Results to a Patient

It's common to go through the motions when attending a regular health checkup. We say, "ahhh" when doctors check the back of our throat, we breathe in and out deeply as they test our lungs, and typically, when they tell us we're healthy, we take their word for it. New research, though, has shown that "normal" blood pressure readings might not be as normal as we previously thought.

A study published in JAMA Cardiology found spikes in blood pressure (BP) readings in young adults can indicate heart-health risks later in life.

Until now, doctors have followed a method of averaging two blood pressure readings. While considered a safe and thorough protocol, researchers now say that practice might be masking early warning signs of cardiovascular disease. 

For example, "If a patient comes in with one reading in December and a significantly lower reading in January," said lead author Yuichiro Yano, M.D., "the average might...appear normal." But according to the study, those changes could actually affect a young person's health later in life. 

How did they find this?

Researchers evaluated data from more than 3,300 people in a 30-year study. BP readings were taken on five separate occasions and ended when participants were 35 years old.

Yano and his team paid special attention to participants who showed spikes in systolic blood pressure and continued to study their health for the next 20 years. They were tracked to see if cardiovascular diseases might develop, and turns out, they did.

According to the study, every 3.6-mm spike resulted in a 15% increased risk of heart disease in middle age, regardless of healthy BP averages. Additionally, there were more than 181 deaths and 162 cardiovascular issues, including coronary heart disease, heart failure, stroke, and necessary procedures, like stents, to clear blocked arteries. 


How can patients prevent overlooked readings?

It's important to be attentive during blood pressure readings. If you notice serious changes in results from one appointment to the next, raise some questions to your doc. It's important to advocate for your own health in order to make the most of your appointments.

Yano said until now, changes in readings affecting heart health have been a "chance phenomenon, but this research indicates maybe not. Variability matters." Since the study is new, it's possible that doctors might still take variability lightly, so make sure you don't.

Recognizing warning signs when you're young enough to implement healthy lifestyle changes, like eating well and getting high-quality sleep, can lower your risks and potentially add years to your life.

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