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You know the guy. You work with him, or you’re friends with him, or maybe you even are him. He’s youngish. Fit-ish. Flirting with fasting and CBD. Always tracking his steps, his sleep, his heart rate, his meditation streaks. But these trackers overlook one metric: blood pressure. Those two numbers measure how well your blood vessels handle the 2,000 gallons of blood your heart pumps around your body in a day. And young guys’ vessels aren’t doing the job so well.
In 2019, Blue Cross Blue Shield released data from the claims of 55 million people in its Health of Millennials report. One of the most shocking stats: From 2014 to 2017, the prevalence of high blood pressure in people ages 21 to 36 jumped 16 percent, and compared with Gen Xers when they were the same age, high blood pressure among millennials was 10 percent more prevalent.
So what exactly do we mean by “high”? We mean blood pressure that measures above 130 systolic (the pressure in your arteries when your heart contracts) or 80 diastolic (the pressure between beats). And when that happens, explains preventive cardiologist Michael Miedema, M.D., M.P.H., of the Minneapolis Heart Institute Foundation, your blood vessels stiffen up, forcing blood pressure even higher. That can create stress on vessel walls, leading to an ugly chain of inflammation, plaque buildup, and higher risk for heart attack and stroke.
For the longest time, most young people didn’t have to worry about this. “Youth has always been a relative Teflon coating,” says Eric Topol, M.D., founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California. Blood-pressure issues were strictly for older people, and the idea that this protection might be eroding is forcing doctors to examine what’s really going on. Here’s what they’re finding.
All That #Wellness Isn’t Making you Healthy
You’d think customized vitamins, kombucha, and cryotherapy would get you to #peakwellness, but when it comes to blood pressure, they’re not doing much. “With millennials, you hear a lot about wellness and not as much about health—and they’re different,” says Christopher Kelly, M.D., a cardiologist at North Carolina Heart and Vascular Hospital, and a millennial himself. “Wellness trends promise great results with little effort, but few have any proven long-term benefits,” he says. “You won’t see ads on Instagram for the few things that we know promote health, including regular exercise, not smoking, being at a healthy weight, and screening for blood-pressure and cholesterol issues.”
Being Broke Can Break You
Millennials carry more than $1 trillion in debt. A large chunk of that is due to student loans—millennials owe more than four times what Gen Xers do. Add this weight to other pressures and it makes sense that millennials reported the highest average stress level of any generation, at 5.7 out of 10, in the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey. (Gen Xers came in at 5.1, Gen Zers at 5.3, and boomers at a relatively zen 4.1.)
“Most of us overlook that the medical word we use for high blood pressure, hypertension, is really hyper and tension,” says cardiologist Andrew M. Freeman, M.D., of National Jewish Health in Denver. Not only does chronic stress play a role in high blood pressure, but the responses we often have to what’s stressing us out—like binge eating and cutting sleep short—jack it up, too.
Blame Seamless and Postmates
The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that people who ate home-cooked meals almost every day consumed nearly 1,000 fewer calories a week than those who went with home-cooked once a week or less. And that’s bad news for millennials: The average millennial eats out or buys takeout food five times per week, according to a Bankrate survey, which means they’re devouring all the pressure-boosting sodium and calories that come with it. (Sodium is particularly sneaky: In one study, 90 percent of people thought their restaurant meal had about 1,000 milligrams—around half a day’s worth—less than it did.) And sodium ends up in your diet via some surprising foods, like bread (see the top sources here).
Then there’s the weight factor. Millennials are on track to be the heaviest generation in history, and extra weight on a young adult can ratchet up blood pressure and thicken the heart muscle early, inviting heart disease later on.
It’s Easy to Avoid Moving
“The heart requires the challenge of moving blood through the body to keep things supple and functioning normally,” says Aaron Baggish, M.D., of Massachusetts General Hospital. And between more screen time, longer commutes, and more labor-saving devices, Dr. Baggish explains, “many millennials are just not doing enough activity.” See the best exercises to get started with.
But There’s Good News About Young Guys’ Blood Pressure
You can head off this whole saga with some pretty simple lifestyle changes. Start with the six basic steps at right, and keep on top of your blood-pressure rates with the three gizmos below. Even minor adjustments can bring down your BP, especially the ones below.
6 Small Changes That Take Blood Pressure Down
1.) Lose two pounds. For every two pounds or so you shed, you could see a one-point drop in systolic blood pressure (the top number).
2.) Get up every 45 minutes and walk around. This simple move was enough to significantly lower diastolic blood pressure in one study.
3.) Eat for your heart. “Following a heart-healthy diet can drop systolic blood pressure as much as a pill can,” says cardiologist Michael Miedema, M.D., M.P.H. That’s about three to five points.
4.) Fill up on potassium. This mineral can counteract the effects of sodium in your diet. Help it out and counter sodium yourself by nixing key sources like bread, cold cuts, and pizza.
5.) Say yes to pickup basketball. The adrenaline and cortisol that swirl around when you’re stressed can hike up blood pressure. In fact, one recent study found that male med students were 13 times as likely to have elevated numbers as their female counterparts. Friends help buffer stress. Bonus if you combine hanging out with a workout.
6.) Monitor pressure at home. Everyone should check their BP once a month at home, even if they’re healthy, says John Elefteriades, M.D., director of the Aortic Institute at Yale-New Haven Hospital. It can help you ID triggers so you can keep them from messing with your numbers and your life.
Cassie Shortsleeve is a skilled freelance writer and editor with almost a decade of experience reporting on all things health, fitness, and travel. A former Shape and Men’s Health editor, her work has also been published in Women’s Health, SELF, Runner’s World, Men’s Journal, CNTraveler.com, and other national print and digital publications. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her drinking coffee or running around her hometown of Boston.