The biggest health problem in China is high blood pressure — Quartz

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New research reveals one of the top drivers of death in China is getting worse—and the government isn’t yet prepared to stop it.

A study published this week in The Lancet paints a stark picture of a public-health crisis, one that highlights systemic problems in the national health-care system and a problem that promises to worsen as more Chinese citizens enter the middle class.

It is estimated that nearly half of Chinese adults between 35 and 75 suffer from high blood pressure, or hypertension. Fewer than a third are being treated, leaving millions at risk. The study is particularly noteworthy for two reasons:

  • High blood pressure dramatically increases the risk of stroke, the leading cause of death in China, according to the study, accounting for 20% of all deaths each year.
  • The condition is on the rise. This has been largely attributed to China’s aging population, urbanization, dietary changes, and the increasing prevalence of obesity.

This poses a significant problem for China as it experiences societal shifts that go hand-in-hand with the greater industrialization that has helped lift many of its 1.3 billion people into the middle class. New disposable income is often spent on processed Western foods (the country is already struggling with a diabetes problem). Because high blood pressure is so common and so widely unaddressed, researchers call it a “silent killer,” and as they concluded, Chinese leaders now have important policy decisions to make.

“The most direct implication is that China needs a universal, rather than targeted, approach to hypertension and that the impediments to control must be illuminated,” the study states. “Education and screening will not be sufficient without parallel efforts to improve treatments.”

The researchers used data generated by an ambitious program—the China Patient-Centered Evaluative Assessment of Cardiac Events Million Persons Project—that assessed more than 1.7 million people from all 31 mainland provinces between September 2014 and June 2017. About 60% of the participants were women, and the average age of each subject was 55. The country’s Ministry of Finance and National Health and Family Planning Commission funded the study.

The researchers suggest that China should develop top-down strategies to offer health education, free blood-pressure screenings, more access to affordable medications, and tips for preventing the onset of hypertension.

Read next: Facing explosive obesity, China is telling citizens to cut back on meat and eggs

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