Using a state-of-the-art scanner and genetic testing scientists are now able to detect previously unseen tiny nodules in the adrenal glands that could lead to hypertension or high blood pressure.
Lead researcher professor Morris Brown said for patients in their 30s the benefits of surgery to remove the affected adrenal gland was substantial.
“They will avoid a lifetime of taking drugs, which are unnecessary,” said Brown, who is professor of clinical pharmacology at the University of Cambridge. “When they get to the age when heart attacks and strokes become common they will be at substantially low risk, in fact at no increased risk as anyone else in the population.”
The benign tumours cause an increase of the hormone aldosterone in the adrenals, leading to salt retention in the kidneys, and thus raising blood pressure.
The researchers found that patients with these small growths are five times more at risk of having heart attacks and strokes compared to other people with high blood pressure.
Previous research on larger growths, detected with traditional CT scans, put estimates of people at risk of hypertension at half a million.
“We think our research highlights a whole new tier of these much smaller than the classically recognised type, and overall there could be another half a million people who are affected by this,” Brown said.
He hopes that doctors will now concentrate on picking up the 5,000-10,000 new cases of young people per year.
The Cambridge team developed a modified PET-CT scan that allows a quick diagnosis of smaller nodules.
Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, which part-funded the study, said, “It is an exciting development, as this group of patients can be completely cured of high blood pressure once they have been identified, so the quicker they are diagnosed the better.”
Government figures show that hypertension affects 10-15 million people in the UK, but an estimated 30 per cent of people are unaware they have the condition.
Blood pressure constantly higher than the recommended level of 130/80 mmHg is considered high.