The ease with which you can measure your blood pressure using one of those cuff machines at the pharmacy belies just how important this number is to your health.
Chronically high blood pressure, which affects about one in three adults in the United States, increases the risk for stroke, heart attack, heart and kidney failure, and aneurysms.
Studies have so far failed to find common genetic variations associated with blood pressure, although there is strong evidence that genetic factors do play a part.
Now, new research published online Sunday in Nature Genetics has identified two variants that not only help explain differences in blood pressure but could also point the way to new therapeutics.
In a study of 14,473 people, Christopher Newton-Cheh and colleagues identified three genetic variations associated with increased blood levels of two different “natriuretic peptides” — blood pressure-lowering hormones released by heart cells.
Further investigation of these three variants in an additional 29,717 people revealed that two of them are also associated with small reductions in blood pressure — 0.9-1.5 mm Hg for systolic (the top number in a blood pressure reading) and 0.3-0.8 mm Hg for diastolic blood pressure. The variants were also linked to 10-15% decreased odds of having high blood pressure or being prescribed blood pressure-lowering medication.
While the reductions in blood pressure associated with these variants may seem small (a normal blood pressure reading is something like 120 mm Hg/80 mm Hg), the authors note that even a 1 mm Hg reduction in systolic blood pressure has been associated with an 8% lower risk of death from stroke or heart attack. They speculate that lifelong lowered blood pressure, as might be expected in someone carrying these genetic variations, could magnify this effect.
According to the authors, there is already active research aimed at finding drugs that activate natriuretic peptides.
“Our finding that genetic variation … associated with natriuretic peptide concentrations was also associated with blood pressure and hypertension suggests that these agents might prove useful for the treatment of hypertension,” the authors write, although they do add that more studies will be necessary to fully explore the role of the genetic variants in blood pressure regulation and cardiovascular physiology.