U.S. facing 'emergency' as 1 in 3 now affected by hypertension

LOS ANGELES -- A federal panel has a familiar prescription for the American people to reduce hypertension, a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke: Eat less salt and more fruits and vegetables, lose some weight and be more active physically.

The incidence of high blood pressure in this country has reached "emergency" proportions, said Dr. David W. Fleming, the health officer for Seattle & King County in Washington and chairman of an Institute of Medicine panel that released a new report on the problem Monday.

Hypertension "is easy to prevent, simple to diagnose and inexpensive to treat," he said at a news conference. "Yet nearly one in three Americans have hypertension and one in six deaths are caused by hypertension."

The prevalence of hypertension has increased by 25 percent in the last decade, and with the aging of the population, the number of people with hypertension has increased by more than 50 percent, to 73 million.

It is the second leading preventable cause of deaths in this country, after only smoking, the panel said. It is especially common among African Americans.

"This is a call to arms," said Dr. Lawrence J. Appel of Johns Hopkins University, a spokesman for the American Society of Hypertension who was not one of the report's authors.

The report was commissioned by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Only 35 percent of people with hypertension have it under control," said Dr. Corinne Huston, a panel member now at the Food and Drug Administration. "If you live long enough, you are almost guaranteed to get hypertension. But that is not true across the world. The environments we live in have a lot to do with it."

Anyone who has read health stories over the last two decades should be aware of the link between high blood pressure and poor health.

Numerous stories have highlighted the high levels of sodium in processed foods and restaurant food, the infrequency with which Americans walk about, and the relative unavailability of fresh fruits and vegetables at stores in inner city neighborhoods.

But there is "an incredible disconnect," Fleming said. "I'm not sure that most Americans would recognize the fact that one in three have [hypertension]. This is a neglected disease, and it is time to do something about it."