“New” findings about stress and high blood pressure hid in plain sight for 40 years

Many heart experts claim 90 percent of high blood pressure cases are “essential,” meaning they’re somehow inherent, inborn, and unavoidable. But that’s absurd. Stress is the No.1 hidden cause of high blood pressure. Not your family history. Not salt. Not saturated fats. And not alcohol. In fact, a new study confirms the pivotal role stress plays in raising blood pressure.

You see, the body naturally responds to stress by raising blood pressure. This “fight or flight” reaction circulates more blood, oxygen, and energy throughout your body. It helps get you “pumped” to meet, or to flee, danger.

So–when you perceive danger frequently, or even constantly, in our modern world, elevated blood pressure can seem like the inevitable or “essential” result–often to the point where it never goes back down to normal.

For this new study, researchers focused on childhood stress. They followed almost 400 African-American and Caucasian participants over a 23-year period. They took the participants’ blood pressure readings every one to two years from childhood to adulthood. And they documented the participants’ exposure to three kinds of stressful experiences:

  1. Emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse in childhood
  2. Emotional and/or physical neglect in childhood
  3. Household dysfunction that involved criminal activity, domestic violence, mental illness, parental marital discord, and/or substance abuse

Overall, the researchers found participants exposed to stress in childhood ended up with significantly higher systolic blood pressure as young adults compared to those who grew up without such stressful influences.

To be more specific, 69 percent of participants had at least one kind of stressful experience in childhood. And 18 percent of them had exposure to more than three kinds of stressful experiences. The most common stress was parental marital discord.

This connection between stress and high blood pressure persisted even after the researchers took into account socio-economic status, drug use, smoking, and other variables that might influence results. The researchers said the connection between stress during childhood and risk of high blood pressure was even stronger than they expected.

Young adults who experienced multiple stressful experiences during childhood showed a faster increase of blood pressure levels after age 30.

Of course, I’ve known about the huge impact childhood stress has on blood pressure for nearly four decades. In fact, back in the late 1970s, I measured blood pressure readings in thousands of schoolchildren in a fast-growing area of the Philippines. In addition, Moslem separatists (Moros) and Communist guerillas (“New Peoples’ Army,” or formerly Hukbalahap) often staged terrorist attacks in this area. So the children had to deal with intense stress on a daily basis.

They also had a lot of academic stress. In the schools, teachers divided each grade into five sections based upon how well the children performed. I noted that teachers treated remedial students poorly. They punished and berated them for their lack of academic success. Not surprisingly, students in the remedial sections of every grade had much higher blood pressure.

It had nothing to do with salt intake, the government’s favorite hypertension culprit over the last 40 years. In fact, I found that men, women and children in the traditional fishing villages right outside the big city had the highest salt intakes of all. And in these villages, high-salt traditional fisherman had lower blood pressures than “normal” adults.

I also noted schoolchildren in Japan were starting to commit suicide due to high stress academic pressures. I published my findings on the association between stress of academic performance and high blood pressure in childhood in the influential Journal of American Public Health Association (AJPH) in 1979.

I only wish more school officials in the U.S. had paid attention to that important research. Today, academic stress is a huge problem here in the U.S. In fact, last month, the New York Times reported on a rash of suicides in the highly competitive school districts of Washington, D.C. and Palo Alto, CA.

Research also links stress and high blood pressure with the color of your skin.

In fact, in the late 1970s, my colleague Dr. Bill Harwood and his associates published studies in the AJPH that linked darker skin color among African-Americans in Detroit with a higher risk of elevated blood pressure.

Harwood measured skin color scientifically, with a light refractometer. So there was nothing subjective about his assessments. But other researchers interpreted his findings very subjectively.

You see, back then, scientists wanted to find a genetic link for everything. Apparently, there was supposed to be a “faulty” gene for high blood pressure. And African-Americans supposedly had more of this telltale gene. (Of course, many scientists today still look for these “faulty” genes, as I’ll discuss in Friday’s Daily Dispatch. These scientists have more modern tools, but they still don’t understand much more than we did 40 years ago.)

At the same time, other studies showed that a person socially or culturally identified as African-American could have a diverse genetic make-up…with just 5 percent African genes.

Clearly, genetics didn’t cause the high blood pressure in those subjects in Detroit.

Instead, increased psychosocial stress of being African-American in the 1970s caused their high blood pressure. Harwood’s studies showed that the darker the skin, the more the stress, and the higher the blood pressure.

Again, it makes me shake my head. We had all this evidence about stress and high blood pressure back in the 1970s. But we did so little with it over the past 40 years.

Fortunately, there’s still time for you to benefit from these “new” findings that have been hiding in plain sight for 40 years.

You can start by keeping your blood pressure under control by learning how to manage your everyday stress. Many different mind-body techniques can help you deal with stress. From meditation to biofeedback to therapeutic massage.

But first, you should learn which personality type you have. This step will help you decide which technique will work best for you. For example, hypnosis or meditation works well for some personalities. But not for others.

Take this short online quiz to learn which personality type you have. Then, you can make a better-informed decision about which mind-body technique to use to help lower your daily stress.



  1. “Adverse Childhood Experiences and Blood Pressure Trajectories from Childhood to Young Adulthood: The Georgia Stress and Heart Study,” Circulation (circ.ahajournals.org); published online before print April 9, 2015
  2. “Best, Brightest — and Saddest?” New York Times (www.nytimes.com) 4/11/2015