The “largest genetic association study of blood pressure traits” to date has studied over 1 million people and found 535 new genetic loci linked with the condition. This finding may help predict the risk of high blood pressure and identify better treatments.

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DNA plays a much larger role in the development of high blood pressure than previously believed.

The American Heart Association (AHA) suggest that more than 100 million people in the United States now have high blood pressure.

That number equates to almost half of all adults who reside in the country.

Worldwide, the condition is the leading cause of cardiovascular death.

In the U.S., the number of deaths resulting from high blood pressure increased by 38 percent in 2005–2015. High blood pressure can cause many serious conditions, such as heart attack, stroke, heart failure, kidney failure, and the loss of vision, among several others.

Risk factors for high blood pressure are also numerous and can be divided into modifiable and non-modifiable ones.

A lack of physical activity, smoking, an unhealthful diet, excessive alcohol intake, stress, and being overweight are some factors that heighten risk but that can be changed or modified.

However, race, sex, genes, and age can also influence risk, and such factors cannot be changed. That being said, just being aware of them can help a person make lifestyle changes that could offset the risk.

New research delves deeper into the genetic risk factors. A team led by scientists at Queen Mary University of London and Imperial College London — both in the United Kingdom — reviewed the genetic data of over 1 million people and found more than 500 new genetic regions that could be responsible for high blood pressure.

Researcher Prof. Mark Caulfield, from Queen Mary University of London, is a co-corresponding author of the paper. The team’s findings have recently been published in the journal Nature Genetics.

Prof. Caulfield and his colleagues analyzed genetic and blood pressure data from the UK Biobank database and the International Consortium of Blood Pressure Genome Wide Association Studies.

In total, they studied the DNA of over 1 million European participants and cross-referenced it with data on their systolic, diastolic, and pulse blood pressure.

Overall, the researchers identified 535 new genetic loci associated with high blood pressure. This accounts for almost a third (27 percent) of “the estimated heritability for blood pressure,” explain the study authors.

More specifically, the study revealed that people who were in the highest genetic risk group had a blood pressure that was 13 millimeters of mercury higher, on average, than those in the lowest genetic risk group.

Also, people in this group were 3.34 times more likely to develop hypertension and 1.52 times more likely to have more serious cardiovascular problems.

Finally, the study points to some potential new drug targets and ways in which existing drugs could serve to treat hypertension.

Because one of the newly discovered genetic locations, for instance, is targeted by a drug for type 2 diabetes, the drug could be used to treat patients with hypertension who did not respond to other treatments.

Prof. Caulfield comments on the significance of the new findings, saying, “This is the most major advance in blood pressure genetics to date.”

“We now know that there are over 1,000 genetic signals which influence our blood pressure,” he adds. This provides us with many new insights into how our bodies regulate blood pressure and has revealed several new opportunities for future drug development.

“With this information, we could calculate a person’s genetic risk score for high blood pressure in later life,” Prof. Caulfield says. “Taking a precision medicine approach, doctors could target early lifestyle interventions to those with a high genetic risk, such as losing weight, reducing alcohol consumption, and increasing exercise.”

Co-lead researcher Prof. Paul Elliott, at Imperial College London, echoes the same sentiments, claiming, “Identifying these kinds of genetic signals will increasingly help us to split patients into groups based on their risk of disease.”

“By identifying those patients who have the greatest underlying risk, we may be able to help them to change lifestyle factors which make them more likely to develop disease, as well as enabling doctors to provide them with targeted treatments earlier, reducing the burden of disease on the health service, and increasing people’s quality of life.”

Prof. Jeremy Pearson — an associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, a nonprofit organization that co-funded the research — also chimes in.

According to him, “Knowing which genes cause high blood pressure may help us to spot the people who are at risk, before the damage is done.

Those at risk can be treated — either with medication or lifestyle changes — potentially preventing thousands of heart attacks and strokes every year.”

Prof. Jeremy Pearson