High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a problem for millions of Americans and is made especially dangerous by the fact that it silently damages your body. For many, the signs of hypertension appear too late, when much of the damage is already done. While many remedy this problem with various medications, physicians have long wondered how low they should aim to keep a person’s blood pressure. Now a new study soon to be released has found that the goal for most should probably be lower than expected, a result that could save millions from stroke and other deadly diseases.
What is high blood pressure and why do people get it?
Blood pressure is a measure of two parts of your heartbeat. It first reflects the highest pressure your heart puts out at the peak of the heartbeat, which is called the systolic pressure. It also reflects the lowest pressure your arteries experience when your heart is in between beats, which is called the diastolic pressure. This pressure is written in shorthand as the higher systolic pressure over the lower diastolic pressure. Normal blood pressure should be less than a systolic pressure of 120 over a diastolic pressure of 80 or 120/80. Hypertension is anything over a systolic of 140 or a diastolic of 90. In between normal and hypertension is called “prehypertension” and indicates that you’re at risk.
The most common type of hypertension is primary hypertension. Unfortunately, the causes of primary hypertension still aren’t well understood, but there are risk factors that make you more likely to get hypertension. They include:
- Older age
- Being overweight or obese
- Having a family history of high blood pressure
- Being African American
- Eating a diet high in salt
- Drinking lots of alcohol
- Lack of exercise
- Having diabetes
Research has found that reducing your risk factors can help to lower your blood pressure.
The other type of hypertension is secondary hypertension, which is mostly due to a specific disease or hormonal disruption that is forcing the body to boost blood pressure. This type of hypertension is less common, but can be easier to treat as long as the underlying disease can be found.
How is hypertension normally treated?
Research has shown that lowering high blood pressure can dramatically lower a person’s risk of stroke, heart attack, heart failure and kidney disease, all of which can be fatal. The first line treatment is to cut down on a person’s risk factors, by losing weight or controlling diabetes for example. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s not possible to reduce risk factors or a person’s blood pressure might be too high to lower just with lifestyle change. In those cases, medications are extremely important. They help to quickly and effectively bring blood pressure down and keep it within a safe range. A variety of medications are available that work in different ways to drop blood pressure and several different kinds are often used at once to boost effectiveness.
What did the study find?
The study compared health decline in several areas and any causes of death in the two groups. The study was supposed to run for seven years, but was stopped prematurely because an early look at the data showed a large benefit from keeping your blood pressure below 120. Those with the lower systolic pressure goal were about a third less likely to end up with a heart attack, stroke, or heart failure and about a quarter less likely to die. Studies like this are often stopped early if the results are obvious and could benefit a large number of people if they were known earlier.
The authors caution that this study doesn’t mean you should run out and change your blood pressure dose or start taking more of your medication. The effects of blood pressure take a long time to cause health problems and waiting a few months to discuss a lower target blood pressure won’t be the difference between life and death. But the findings do show that it’s worth having a conversation with your doctor about what blood pressure would be best for your health based on the other conditions you have. For those with normal blood pressure, the study is a reminder of just how dangerous high blood pressure can be and how important it is to do everything you can to lower your risk. If you don’t know your blood pressure or whether you’re at risk for hypertension, make an appointment with your doctor to get yourself checked out.