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Study finds 1 in 5 young athletes meet criteria for pre-hypertension

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(NEW YORK) — Up to one in five young athletes ages 10 to 31 may have pre-hypertension, a precursor to high blood pressure, according to a new preliminary study.

More than 20% of athletes studied met the criteria for having high blood pressure, which can increase the risk of heart attack, stroke, and kidney disease.

Teenage boys appeared to be more at risk than teenage girls, according to the study, with more than double the rates of stage 1 and stage 2 hypertension. Twenty-eight percent of athletes who played multiple sports had high blood pressure, the study found.

Normal blood pressure is considered to be 120/80 or below, according the American Heart Association. Stage 1 hypertension is considered to be a systolic, or upper number, reading of 130-139 and/or a lower, or diastolic, reading of 80-89. Stage 2 hypertension is a systolic reading of 140 or higher, and/or a diastolic reading of 90 or higher.

The doctors who led the research say young people should still be encouraged to play sports, because an active lifestyle reduces the risk of metabolic diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. However, they say not enough people may be aware of their underlying condition.

“When we think of hypertension, we often think about older patients,” said lead author Dr. Aneeq Malik, a third-year internal medicine resident at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. Dr. Malik also co-founded the nonprofit Saving Hearts Foundation, which hosted free heart screening events where the study data was collected.

“Even people who we consider extremely healthy young adults, people who engage in physical activity, are still at increased risk,” Malik said.

Malik also stressed that the study results should not deter young people from being active: “Just because you are engaging in sports doesn’t necessarily mean that is the cause for why these people are at greater risk.”

The study is being presented at the American College of Cardiology’s Care of the Athletic Heart Conference. Though it has not gone through the typical scientific vetting process, some doctors say it still helps call attention to an often overlooked issue.

“There is a stark need for an increased focus on prevention as opposed to treatment alone,” said Dr. Anuradha Lala, a cardiologist at the Mount Sinai Fuster Heart Hospital in New York, who was not involved in the study. “A huge part of prevention is adequate and appropriate screening.”

Lala also said it’s important to understand the “influence of racial and ethnic background on the incidence and prevalence of hypertension at earlier ages.” The study found that African American and Hispanic participants, for example, had higher rates of hypertension.

She further noted that multiple factors can lead to high blood pressure, and recommends that parents can help address it by being “conscious about diet, sleep, and the psychological well-being that our children are exposed to and encountering.”

Michelle March, MD, MPH, MEd is a general pediatrics research fellow at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.

Arifeen Rahman, MD is a resident in Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at Stanford Medicine and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.

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