Are you currently managing high blood pressure? Commonly referred to as the “silent killer”, high blood pressure, or hypertension, has become a national epidemic in the United States. The American Heart Association reports that over 100 million adults, roughly 1 in 2, have high blood pressure and a huge percentage of those who do don’t even know it.
While diet modifications and exercise have been a long-standing treatment protocol to complement medications prescribed to manage high blood pressure, outdated treatment goals haven’t contributed much towards curbing this widespread epidemic. New research is illustrating, however, how more aggressive blood pressure targets can make a big difference in not only patient health outcomes but mortality rates too.
Understanding High Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is a known risk factor for a host of life-threatening health conditions like diabetes, stroke, and cardiovascular disease. What exactly is high blood pressure? Blood pressure, in general, refers to the force at which your heart is pumping blood through your body. The more difficult it is to circulate blood effectively, the harder the force at which blood needs to be pumped.
Things that can inhibit proper circulation include a thickening and narrowing of the arteries, a weakening of the artery walls, plaque build-up in arteries, and a weakened heart muscle. When blood pressure rises, it can further compromise the integrity of the cardiovascular system placing undue strain not just on arteries and blood vessels, but on the heart, organs (like the kidneys), the eyes, and even the brain.
Primary hypertension is high blood pressure that develops over many years without any concrete identifiable cause. Secondary hypertension typically appears more suddenly as a result of an underlying cause like kidney disease, sleep apnea, thyroid problems, medication side effects, and recreational drug use.
New Blood Pressure Research
Prior to the conclusion of the recent SPRINT (Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial) study which followed over 9,000 older adults in the U.S. with high blood pressure, clinical guidelines suggested that doctors treat their hypertensive patients with lax goals aimed at achieving systolic readings between 121 mmHg and 140 mmHg. With findings from the extensive research conducted during the 10-year SPRINT study, however, updated guidelines narrow the threshold for what measurements define hypertension and how more aggressive measures can save lives.
Researchers from the study found that treating towards a strict blood pressure goal of 120 mmHg / 80 mmHg revealed jaw-dropping results. Not only did these narrower treatment goals reduce cardiovascular events by a quarter, but it also lowered the death rate among participants by almost 30 percent. When it came to cognitive functioning, the lower blood pressure targets were also associated with a 15 percent lower risk of developing dementia.
Updated Clinical Guidelines
In 2017, the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology updated their clinical practice guidelines for high blood pressure in adults. Gone are the days of labeling patients with blood pressure readings in the 121 – 140 mmHg range as “prehypertensive.” Instead, patients can be categorized by updated readings:
- Below 120/80 mmHg = Normal
- Between 120 and 129 / 79 or less mmHg = Elevated
- Between 130 and 139 / 80 to 89 mmHg = Stage 1
- Between 140 and 179 / 90 to 120 mmHg = Stage 2
- Over either 180 (systolic) or 120 (diastolic) mmHg = hypertensive crisis
Tips for Managing High Blood Pressure
Knowing that treating towards a maximum of 120/80 mmHg improves health outcomes and longevity means that clinicians and patients should work together to develop even more effective blood pressure management plans. Tips for doing this including:
- Limit risk factors – in addition to inactivity, stress, and being overweight, risk factors like excessive alcohol consumption, smoking, eating too much salt, and not getting enough electrolytes like potassium can increase your risk for hypertension. Proactively limiting these can give hypertensive patients a leg up.
- Self-monitor – utilizing blood pressure monitors at home and on the go can help patients with hypertension advocate for their own wellbeing and give them a better understanding and sense of control over their health. Daily readings should be taken around the same time of day following the manufacturer instructions that came with the device.
- Exercise – routine physical activity isn’t just great for your waistline, it also helps to strengthen the heart muscle and the entire cardiovascular system. Experts recommend getting a minimum of 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise a week, though upwards of 5 hours a week has even more substantial health benefits.
- Diet modifications – making long-term changes to your diet to limit sodium intake and eliminate processed and high-sugar foods has been shown to significantly benefit hypertension management plans.