Researchers from four institutions are delving into the causes and possible cures for high blood pressure as part of the American Heart Association’s new Strategically Focused Research Network on hypertension.

High blood pressure is a leading risk factor for death worldwide, responsible for roughly 7.5 million deaths, according to a 2009 report from the World Health Organization. It’s also a risk factor for heart disease, the world’s leading cause of death.

The new studies seek to change how the condition is diagnosed and treated and to better understand its molecular basis. Scientists also hope to improve its treatment in young people and provide a new predictor of preeclampsia to help pregnant women get better care.

The network will include investigators from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Medical College of Wisconsin, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and the University of Iowa.

The AHA will support the Strategically Focused Research Network on hypertension with an investment of $15 million over four years, beginning this year.

“The four successful centers are all international leaders in the field of hypertension,” said Christopher Wilcox, M.D., director of the Center for Hypertension, Kidney and Vascular Research at Georgetown University.

The research centers include a mix of basic, clinical and population health research. While basic research carried out in a laboratory increases our understanding of fundamental life processes, clinical research involves people and looks for new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat diseases. Meanwhile, population studies follow large groups of people over a long time to discover trends about diet, exercise and other factors that influence heart disease.

“The proposed research entails a vibrant mix of basic studies to better understand the causes and consequences of hypertension and population studies to assess their impact in the U.S. population,” said Wilcox, who serves as chair of the AHA’s Hypertension Council.

At the University of Alabama at Birmingham, researchers want to change how high blood pressure is diagnosed and treated. They will study whether nighttime hypertension can be treated through sodium reduction and how salt consumption leads to high blood pressure at night.

Researchers at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital hope to improve how blood pressure is managed through lifestyle to limit the need for medication in children. Another goal is to reduce the number of young people who need echocardiograms and to identify genes that influence the development of blood pressure-related organ damage.

Scientists at the Medical College of Wisconsin said the lack of understanding about the molecular basis for hypertension is a big obstacle to examining new approaches for controlling it. To learn more, researchers there will look at how epigenetic changes throughout the entire human genome in people and animals with hypertension to identify new approaches for controlling high blood pressure.

At the University of Iowa, investigators aim to find a reliable, early predictor of preeclampsia to help doctors in areas with lower levels of obstetric care identify the highest-risk patients as early as the sixth week of pregnancy. Preeclampsia is associated with future cardiovascular disease in both women and their children.

The research networks in Wisconsin and Iowa are supported by special funding from the AHA’s Midwest Affiliate.

About 80 million U.S. adults have been diagnosed with high blood pressure. It can be deadly if it’s not treated. At 50, life expectancy is about five years longer for people with normal blood pressure than for hypertensive people, according to the AHA.

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