High blood pressure is a key risk factor for heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States. In a new study, researchers reveal the discovery of more than 100 genes associated with high blood pressure, bringing us closer to personalized treatment strategies for the condition.

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Researchers have pinpointed 107 new genetic regions linked to high blood pressure.

Co-lead study author Prof. Mark Caulfield, of Queen Mary University London in the United Kingdom, and colleagues report their findings in the journal Nature Genetics.

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, occurs when the force of blood flowing through the arteries is too high.

There are two numbers used to measure blood pressure: systolic and diastolic. Systolic blood pressure measures blood vessel pressure when the heart beats, while diastolic blood pressure measures the pressure between heartbeats.

Blood pressure is considered high if a person has a systolic measurement of 120 milligrams of mercury (mm Hg) or higher, and a diastolic measurement of 90 mm Hg or higher. This would be written as 120/90 mm Hg.

High blood pressure is a known risk factor for heart attack, stroke, heart disease, and heart failure. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 1 in 3 U.S. adults have high blood pressure, and only around half of these have the condition under control.

A poor lifestyle – such as an unhealthful diet and lack of exercise – is considered a primary cause of high blood pressure. In recent years, however, researchers have found that genetics also play a significant role in the condition.

Last year, a study from Prof. Caulfield and colleagues – which genotyped almost 350,000 people – discovered around 30 new genetic regions linked to the development of high blood pressure.

The new study builds on those findings, uncovering 107 genetic regions associated with high blood pressure.

Researchers arrived at their current findings by testing approximately 9.8 million genetic variants of more than 422,000 adults who were a part of UK Biobank – a cohort that gathered detailed health information of 500,000 U.K. adults aged 40-69 years between 2006 and 2010.

By cross-referencing the genetic data with information on participants’ blood pressure, Prof. Caulfield and team discovered 107 genetic regions linked to high blood pressure. These included 32 regions that had not previously been reported, as well as at least 53 regions that had been reported but never validated.

The team notes that these genetic regions – many of which were highly expressed in cardiovascular tissue and blood vessels – could be targeted with new blood pressure-lowering medications.

Finding 107 new genetic regions linked to blood pressure almost doubles the amount of genes we can evaluate to target for drug treatment.

These exciting genetic regions could provide the basis for new innovative preventive therapies and lifestyle changes for this major cause of heart disease and stroke.”

Prof. Mark Caulfield

As well as paving the way for new treatments for high blood pressure, the new findings may also help to detect the patients that are at risk of hypertension-related complications.

By linking data from the study participants’ medical records with their genetic data, the researchers were able to create a genetic “risk score,” which they found could be used to determine which individuals were at high risk for stroke and heart disease.

The team found that the higher a patient’s genetic risk score, the more likely they were to develop high blood pressure by 50 years of age. Individuals with the highest risk score were found to have a blood pressure around 10 mm Hg higher than those with the lowest risk scores.

Furthermore, for every 10 mm Hg an individual’s blood pressure rose above normal, their risk of stroke or heart disease increased by at least 50 percent.

The researchers say that early-life use of a genetic risk score for hypertension could enable a more personalized approach to reducing the risk of stroke and heart disease.

“We cannot help our genetic makeup, but we can help our lifestyles and, in future, we may be able to alter our lifestyles while knowing whether we are at a genetic advantage or disadvantage,” explains co-lead study author Prof. Paul Elliott, of the School of Public Health at Imperial College London in the U.K.

“Doctors might eventually be able to determine a child’s genetic risk of diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and maybe even cancer, so that they can live well enough to try to counteract the genetic input,” he adds.

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