High blood pressure draining Canada's health-care system, suggests study

A new study says treating high blood pressure eats up roughly 10 per cent of Canada's health-care budget, and those costs are growing.

Calgary study says costs could top $20B in the next decade unless something is done

High blood pressure, otherwise known as hypertension, is costing Canadians billions of dollars. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

A new study says treating high blood pressure eats up roughly 10 per cent of Canada's health-care budget, and those costs are growing.

Known as hypertension, the condition is when a person's blood pressure is elevated for an extended period of time, which can lead to heart attacks, stroke, kidney failure and other health consequences.

The research comes from the University of Calgary's Cumming School of Medicine, and was published in the Hypertension medical journal. It says nine out of 10 people will develop the condition during their lives.  

In 2010 alone, the federal government spent $13.9 billion treating the symptoms and consequences of hypertension.

Dr. Norm Campbell hopes this study will encourage the federal government to take action. (CBC)

Researchers says historic trends show that if nothing is done it could cost Canadian taxpayers more than $20 billion by 2020.

"This is really threatening the very existence of our health-care system," said study co-author Dr. Norm Campbell, who has studied blood pressure for his entire career. 

"We've got an aging population, which means that fewer people are working, less of a tax base. The older population is consuming many, many more of the health-care dollars and it's an unstable situation that ultimately is going to have to be dealt with."

He says the numbers show the growing need for health policies focused on preventing hypertension. They include easy access to weight loss programs and healthy food, as well as reducing dietary salt.

"Such as limiting the amounts of sodium that's added to food and making sure that healthy food is affordable and easily accessible to all Canadians."

Alberta numbers

The study also broke down the numbers for Alberta, which says hypertension affects roughly 21 per cent of adults living in the province.

Study co-author Dr. Kerry McBrien says treating hypertension cost Alberta $1.4 billion in 2010 and accounts for about 8.4 per cent of the province's health-care costs.

She says those numbers are a little lower than the Canadian average because Alberta has a younger population.

"It gets more prevalent with age," she said, pointing to how plaque builds up in arteries over time.

McBrien says the cost to Alberta taxpayers is expected to double unless more is done to prevent high blood pressure. 

Preventing high blood pressure

Hypertension is not only a burden on health-care costs, but also associated with death and disability. 

Campbell says the good news is high blood pressure is often preventable.

He says there are two paths: a public health approach of promoting a healthy lifestyle and identifying people with hypertension and make sure they are properly treated. 

People can reduce their chance of hypertension by eating less salt and getting more potassium from fruits and vegetables, as well as by exercising regularly. He said excess alcohol can also cause problems.

"The best thing a person can do to avoid sodium is to eat unprocessed foods and avoid restaurant foods," said Campbell.

Campbell says he uses a salt tracker to help keep his diet on track that was developed by his colleague JoAnne Arcand.

​"The intended audience is the public and clinicians working with patients who need to follow a lower sodium diet," she said. "It's been well received."

But Campbell says the federal government needs to be on board for real changes, since it falls under it jurisdiction. 

He is disappointed Ottawa rejected the suggestions from his sodium working group that produced a report later included in a private member's bill.

"The federal government agreed to the target to reduce dietary sodium but essentially removed all the active parts that would achieve the target," he said.

The bill would have included warning labels on food, as well as strict government oversight of the food industry.


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