Hypertension is a global problem that affects poorer countries as much as it affects more affluent ones, a new study suggests.
A cross-sectional study of some 1.2 million adults in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) found that overall, rates of hypertension were similar across all levels of education and wealth.
The one outlier was Southeast Asia. There, higher levels of education and household wealth were associated with a greater prevalence of hypertension, but the absolute difference was small.
However, the authors of the study caution that hypertension may increasingly affect adults in the lowest socioeconomic groups as LMICs develop economically.
The study is published online in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Assumptions about hypertension are wrong
“We found that the differences in hypertension prevalence between education and household wealth groups were small in most low- and middle-income countries, so the frequent assumption that hypertension mostly affects the wealthiest and most educated groups in low-and middle-income countries appears to be largely untenable,” senior author Pascal Geldsetzer, MD, MPH, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at Stanford (Calif.) University, told this news organization.
High blood pressure is sometimes assumed to be a result of “Westernized” lifestyles characterized by a high intake of calorie-dense foods and salt and low physical activity. As a result, the condition is frequently thought of as mainly afflicting wealthier segments of society in LMICs, which may in part be responsible for the low degree of funding and attention that hypertension in LMICs has received thus far, Dr. Geldsetzer said.
Traditionally, other global health issues, particularly HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria, have received the lion’s share of government funding. Hypertension, thought to be a condition affecting more affluent countries because it is associated with obesity and a sedentary lifestyle, was ignored, he said.
Knowing the socioeconomic gradients associated with hypertension in LMICs and how these may change in the future is important for policy makers, Dr. Geldsetzer added.
Led by Tabea K. Kirschbaum, MD, Heidelberg Institute of Global Health, University of Heidelberg, Germany, the researchers examined hypertension prevalence by education and household wealth from 76 LMICs in 1,211,386 participants and assessed whether the effect was modified by the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Their analysis included 76 surveys, of which 58 were World Health Organization Stepwise Approach to Surveillance surveys. The median age of the participants was 40 years, and 58.5% were women.
Overall, hypertension prevalence tended to be similar across all educational and household wealth levels and across countries with lower and higher GDPs, although there were some “negligible” country and regional variations.
Treatment rates with blood pressure–lowering drugs for participants who had hypertension were higher in countries with higher GDPs.
Women were more likely to be taking medication than were men.
In some countries, the proportion of individuals taking blood pressure–lowering medication was higher in wealthier households.
In Southeast Asia, however, there was a strong association found between the prevalence of hypertension and higher household wealth levels. Compared with the least wealthy, the risk ratio for the wealthiest was 1.28 (95% confidence interval, 1.22-1.34). A similar association was found for education levels as well.
Education was negatively associated with hypertension in the Eastern Mediterranean. Rates were higher among men than among women.
In an accompanying editorial, Yashashwi Pokharel, MBBS, MSCR, from Wake Forest School of Medicine, Winston-Salem, N.C., and colleagues write:
“Now that we know that hypertension prevalence is not different in the poorest, the least educated, or the least economically developed countries, compared with their wealthier and educated counterparts, we should develop, test, and implement effective strategies to enhance global equity in hypertension care.”
Dr. Pokharel told this news organization that, despite the study’s limitations including heterogeneous data, measurement techniques, and blood pressure monitor use across countries, the signal is loud and clear.
“We urgently need to focus on turning off the faucet by addressing the major determinants of increasing hypertension burden, including the sociocultural and political determinants,” he said. “In this regard, setting funding priorities by donors for hypertension, capacity building, and testing and scaling effective population level hypertension prevention and treatment strategies, developed together with local stakeholders, can have a long-lasting effect. If we perpetuate the neglect, we will ineffectively spend more time mopping up the floor.”
Dr. Geldsetzer is a Chan Zuckerberg Biohub investigator. Dr. Pokharel reports no relevant financial relationships.
A version of this article first appeared on.