The virus belongs to the herpes family, which includes the chicken-pox, cold sore and glandular fever viruses and is carried by millions of people.
High blood pressure is the number one risk factor for strokes and heart attacks and scientists hope the discovery will lead to new treatments or vaccines that could save countless lives.
A research team, headed by Professor Florian Kern, at Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS), a partnership between the universities of Brighton and Sussex with the NHS, have found that the common Cytomegalovirus, or CMV, might be linked to high blood pressure.
CMV is present in over 60 per cent of people over the age of 60 in the UK, which means at least 8.5 million in this age group are affected. Frequently the infection passes unnoticed or there may be mild flu-like symptoms. Once the infection has taken place, the virus remains dormant within the body, usually with no ill effects. However, recurrences of the virus in body fluids may occur occasionally.
CMV has been associated with the ageing of the human immune system and increased mortality in older people. The research team has examined the immune response to CMV in healthy older people and found that their resting blood pressure had a link to the strength of their immune response against the CMV.
Professor Kern, Chair of Immunology at BSMS, said:
"This is a potentially very significant discovery, since it explains a link between CMV and decreased survival in older life and calls for more detailed investigations into a connection between CMV and cardiovascular complications such as heart attacks and strokes."
The article was published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases. The study was supported by the National Institute for Health Research through the Primary Care Research Network (PCRN) South East, and was funded by The Dunhill Medical Trust, which has awarded a further three-year grant to continue this line of research at BSMS.
Professor Kern will be leading the new study in 2014, to examine changes to vascular stiffness in older age in CMV-infected people compared to uninfected people.
"If we can confirm the connection between the immune response to CMV and increased arterial hardening, a very sensitive measure of cardiovascular risk, we would have to start thinking of strategies to prevent the effect of CMV on the immune system early on in millions of people in the UK and many more worldwide. Our new study will hopefully help us find ways to identify those in the highest risk category in future."