02/06/2014 03:06 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2014

Young Adults With Higher-Than-Normal Blood Pressure Could Face Later Heart Risks

Nisian Hughes via Getty Images

If you're a young adult with higher-than-normal blood pressure levels, address it now. Don't wait.

That's the message of a new study in the Journal of the American Heart Association, which shows that elevated blood pressure levels in young adulthood could be a warning sign of heart disease in the future.

Researchers from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine found that starting at age 18, having higher blood pressure (but still within the range considered normal) is associated with a four times higher risk of hardened arteries in middle age, a condition known as coronary artery calcification. When coronary arteries are narrowed, the risk of heart attack goes up.

That means "we can't wait until middle age to address [high blood pressure]," study researcher Norrina Allen, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the university, said in a statement. "If we can prevent their blood pressure from increasing earlier in life we can reduce their risk of future heart attacks and stroke."

The study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, included 4,681 people who were part of the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study. They started the study between 1985 and 1986 when the participants were between ages 18 and 25, and researchers followed them for 25 years to see whose blood pressure levels increased and who developed coronary artery calcification.

Twenty-two percent of the study participants started and ended the study with low blood pressure, while 42 percent started and ended the study with moderate blood pressure levels. Twelve percent of the participants started with moderate blood pressure levels, but the levels increased started at age 35, on average. Nineteen percent of the participants started and ended with elevated blood pressure levels, while 5 percent of the participants started with elevated blood pressure levels that increased even more by the end of the study.

Researchers found that coronary artery calcification risk was highest for the participants who either started and ended the study with elevated blood pressure levels, or those who started the study with elevated levels that only continued to increase.

Right now, hypertension is usually evaluated in middle or older age. But this new study shows it may be more valuable to start tracking blood pressure in young adulthood.

"If we see someone who is 25 or 30 and they fall into one of these patterns, we can predict where they'll be later in middle age," Allen said in the statement. "Then we can prescribe lifestyle changes such as increased physical activity or a better diet that can prevent them from developing hypertension and a higher risk of disease."