(CNN) — Nearly one-third of Americans have high blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When it’s not under control, it can lead to heart damage, stroke and even death.
Now new research suggests anyone with blood pressure even slightly higher than the optimal 120/80 may be more likely to have a stroke –including those patients who are diagnosed as pre-hypertensive.
The research, which is published in the Wednesday online issue of Neurology, looked at 19 studies done on the risk of developing stroke in people with “pre-hypertension,” or blood pressure that falls in the gray area, between 120/80 and 140/90. More than 760,000 participants were followed for time periods ranging from four to 36 years.
The analysis found people who were pre-hypertensive were 66% more likely to develop a stroke than people who had normal blood pressure. The results were the same even when investigators adjusted for other stroke risk factors, such as diabetes and smoking.
When investigators dug deeper into the data, they found people who were on the high end of pre-hypertension were 95% more likely to have a stroke than those with a normal blood pressure. Even those in the low range were 44% more likely to suffer a stroke.
“These findings, if confirmed, have important takeaways for the public,” said study author Dr. Dingli Xu, lead author of the study and a researcher at Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, China. “Considering the high proportion of the population who have higher than normal blood pressure, successful treatment of this condition could prevent many strokes and make a major difference in public health.”
Medication is not recommended for people with pre-hypertension, but health experts say there are other ways to control the condition before considering drug therapy.
“ Lifestyle changes, such as weight loss, exercise, diet, especially reduction in salt, can help,” says Dr. Ralph Sacco, vice president of the American Academy of Neurology and chairman of neurology at the University of Miami Medical Center. “But patients need to make the effort. Many don’t. ”
This research follows last year’s change in guidelines for treating high blood pressure in the United States. The new recommendations suggest doctors prescribe drugs to patients over the age of 60 when their systolic pressure (the top number) is above 150. With this new data, many physicians say 150 may be too high.
“This analysis raises questions about pre-hypertension that does not support the new guidelines. This is a something that needs to be looked at,” says Sacco. “Because as we are seeing, anything over 120/80 can have serious consequences.”
© 2014 CNN. All Rights Reserved