New UK research has revealed for the first time a link between high blood pressure and the most common heart valve disorder, potentially paving the way for preventive interventions that could reduce the need for surgery.
Carried out by researchers from The George Institute for Global Health at the University of Oxford, the large-scale study followed 5.5 million adults in the UK over a 10-year period.
The team found that higher blood pressure earlier in life was strongly associated with a significantly greater risk of developing the valve disorder mitral regurgitation.
The condition, which is more common in older people, makes the heart less efficient at pumping blood around the body and leads to a backflow of blood into the heart.
This causes symptoms such as shortness of breath, tiredness, dizziness and chest pain, but in severe cases it can lead to heart failure.
"Our research suggests this common and disabling valve disorder is not an inevitable consequence of ageing, as previously assumed, but may be preventable," said Professor Kazem Rahimi, lead author of the study and deputy director of The George Institute UK.
"Given the large and growing burden of mitral valve disease, particularly among older people, we believe these findings are likely to have significant implications for medical policy and practice around the world."
Scientists have made significant advances in recent years in an effort to understand valve disease better, however until now mitral regurgitation had been considered to be mainly a degenerative disorder that results from 'wear and tear.'
The new findings could now lead to a focus on prevention rather than treatment, which is the current focus for many health practitioners who often recommend surgery to repair or replace the valve.
"With worldwide ageing and population growth, we are likely to see an increasing number of cases of this condition," said Professor Rahimi. "We need to find effective and affordable measures to tackle it, and our study suggests one possible avenue for prevention, by reducing high blood pressure."
The team now recommend further research to see whether lowering blood pressure, through exercise, diet or medication, could reduce the risk of the disorder.
The findings can be found published online in the journal PLOS Medicine.