(CBS) Nearly one in five. That's the proportion of young adults who have high blood pressure, a.k.a. hypertension, according to a shocking new study from scientists at the University of North Carolina.
The findings differed sharply from previous research showing hypertension to be a problem for only about 4 percent of adults 20 to 39 years of age. Researchers were unable to account for the discrepancy, according to a written statement issued in conjunction with the study.
But no matter what the exact proportion, scientists are sounding the alarm on hypertension.
"There is a sleeping epidemic among young adults," says study researcher Dr. Kathleen Mullan Harris, interim director of the university's Carolina Population Center in Chapel Hill, told WebMD. "We tend to think of them as a rather healthy group, but a prevalence of 19% with hypertension is alarming."
Hypertension can often be controlled with diet, exercise , and drug therapy, but uncontrolled hypertension can lead to heart failure, stroke, kidney failure, and other potentially deadly medical problems.
It's also an economic problem. In 2010, the federal government's Institute of Medicine declared hypertension a "neglected disease" that costs the U.S. health system $73 billion a year, Reuters reported.
For the study - published online in the journal Epidemiology - researchers took blood pressure readings of more than 14,000 men and women 24 to 32 years of age. They found that 19 percnt had blood pressure of 140/90 or higher - and that only about half of these individuals had been told by their doctors that they had the condition, according to Reuters.
The researchers didn't attempt to explain why hypertension might be so prevalent among young people. But in a statement reported by Reuters, Mullen Harris summed up the take-away message:
"Young adults and the medical professionals they visit shouldn't assume they're not old enough to have high blood pressure."