updated 12/9/2003 5:07:25 PM ET 2003-12-09T22:07:25

 In recent years, doctors have come to believe that high levels of inflammation in the bloodstream raise the risk of a heart attack. Now a study suggests they also contribute to high blood pressure.

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In a study of nearly 21,000 women, researchers found that healthy women with high levels of C-reactive protein, or CRP, in their blood were about 50 percent more likely to develop high blood pressure over the next eight years or so.

A similarly increased risk was found even in women whose blood pressure readings at the start seemed to suggest they had a low risk of hypertension.

And the link between high CRP levels and subsequent high blood pressure held even when researchers took into account risk factors such as excess weight.
The findings could lead to better prevention of high blood pressure well before it starts, researchers said.

Similar results expected in men
CRP is necessary to fight infection. Elevated levels can be detected in blood tests and indicate disease or inflammation somewhere in the body.

Doctors should consider including CRP tests in routine physical exams for healthy middle-aged adults, even those who appear to face a low risk of developing hypertension, said Dr. Deepak Bhatt, a Cleveland Clinic Foundation cardiologist not involved in the research.

The study, led by epidemiologist Howard Sesso of Harvard’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, appears in Wednesday’s Journal of the American Medical Association. It was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health, the American Heart Association and the drug company Pharmacia Inc.

Sesso said similar results probably would be found in men.

Extent of risk uncertain
Whether high CRP levels pose an equal or greater threat than other risk factors for high blood pressure is uncertain, Sesso said.

Doctors believe chronically elevated levels of CRP can damage blood vessel walls and cause fatty buildups to burst and trigger heart attacks.

High CRP levels also can make blood vessel walls less flexible, which may explain the effect on blood pressure, said American Heart Association spokeswoman Dr. Nieca Goldberg.

The same things that can reduce blood pressure — sensible diet, losing excess weight and getting plenty of exercise — also can reduce CRP levels.

The study involved women health professionals taking part in broader research on preventing heart disease and cancer.

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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