Is high blood pressure just an unavoidable consequence of aging?

Take a look at data from the United States and you will find the prevalence of hypertension increases with age. According to one report from 2017, the prevalence was 7.5 percent in the 18–39 age group, 33 percent in the 40–59 age group, and 63 percent among those aged 60 and over.

One possible reason, as this study notes, is that the body simply does not function as efficiently as it used to. Arteries can become stiff with age while our overall risk for chronic diseases also rises. 

However, the inevitability of this consequence has been challenged. There is not much evidence for aging‐related increases in blood pressure when looking at non-Western adults who live in secluded communities. But just how strong is this exception?

In a new study, researchers examined two communities in a remote area of the Venezuelan rainforest — the Yanomami and the Yekwana. While the former is regarded as being among “the least assimilated people in the world,” the latter has been exposed to some aspects of the West.

“The Yekwana people live near the Yanomami people, but have been affected by missions and an airstrip for small-engine planes, which has allowed for delivery of medicine and aspects of Western lifestyle, including intermittent exposure to processed foods and salt,” the paper states.

Over the course of five months, blood pressure (BP) was measured in 72 Yanomami participants and 83 Yekwana participants. The researchers included individuals as young as 1 and as old as 60. 

The findings showed no aging‐related increases in BP among the Yanomami participants, regardless of their age. But the same was not the case for the Yekwana participants, where these signs were spotted in adults as well as children.

“Although our study is cross-sectional and limited by small sample size, it adds to findings in Yanomami adults showing that the rise in BP with age may not be natural but rather a consequence of unnatural Western exposures,” the authors wrote. “Furthermore, the age-associated BP rise in the more Westernized Yekwana community began in childhood, highlighting the potential for lifestyle interventions in children to prevent elevated BP.”

It is known that processed foods are often loaded with sodium which means that their consumption can lead to hypertension. These foods are also an important component when studying the link between a Western lifestyle and an increased likelihood of obesity.

Aside from obesity, past research has also highlighted factors like acculturation anxiety and information overload to explain how a Western lifestyle could increase BP. Further studies might gain a better understanding of these factors with the help of a larger sample size.