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Hebrew SeniorLife Study Finds High Blood Pressure Increases Disability Risk Later in Life

High blood pressure significantly increases an individual’s risk of disabilities such as the inability to lift objects, walk up or down stairs, or bathe oneself, later in life, according to researchers at Hebrew SeniorLife’s Hinda and Arthur Marcus Institute for Aging Research. The study, partially funded by the National Institute on Aging, was published in Hypertension: Journal of the American Heart Association.

The researchers, led by Ihab Hajjar, M.D., associate director of Marcus Institute’s Cardiovascular Research Program, found that people with high blood pressure (140 mm Hg/90 mm Hg) suffer greater declines in lower body strength, motor skills, and physical mobility and that people with hypertension have an increased risk of developing a disability related to one of these functional categories. In addition, they found that women with hypertension have significantly increased risk of developing disabilities related to physical mobility and the ability to perform daily activities compared to men.

Dr. Hajjar and his colleagues analyzed data from 999 study participants, 70 percent of whom had hypertension (though only 21 percent had their blood pressure controlled to optimal levels). The participants underwent disability assessments and answered questions to gauge their upper and lower body strength, motor skills, physical mobility, and ability to perform daily activities.

“This adds another dimension to how we think about hypertension,” says Dr. Hajjar. “We always think of it as a risk factor for stroke, heart failure, kidney failure, and coronary artery disease. But this study shows elevated blood pressure, specifically systolic blood pressure [the upper reading, when the heart contracts], also tends to affect our independence and functional abilities.”

Nearly one in three American adults has high blood pressure, including 65 percent of older adults. The incidence of high blood pressure is increasing in women.

“It is very important for clinicians who are managing young and old patients with hypertension to counsel them about their risks of disability, if their blood pressure is elevated,” says Dr. Hajjar, who is an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Dr. Hajjar collaborated with Daniel Lackland, Ph.D., of the Medical University of South Carolina; L. Adrienne Cupples, Ph.D., of Boston University School of Medicine; and Lewis A. Lipsitz, M.D., of Marcus Institute.