And once again, high blood pressure is making headlines in the news: the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology (AHA/ACC) have just released new guidelines about hypertension.
Since this development is likely to cause confusion and concern for many, I’m writing this post to help you understand the debate and what this might mean for you and your family.
By the way, if you’ve read any of my other blood pressure articles on this site, let me reassure you: I am not changing my clinical practice or what I recommend to others, based on the new AHA/ACC guidelines.
The core principles of better blood pressure management for older adults remain the same:
- Take care in how you and your doctors measure blood pressure (more on that here),
- Start by aiming to get blood pressure less than 150/90 mm Hg, as recommended by these expert guidelines issued in 2017 and in 2014,
- And then learn more about what are the likely benefits versus risks of aiming for more intensive BP control.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand is this: treatment of high blood pressure in older adults offers “diminishing returns” as we treat BP to get lower and lower.
Scientific evidence indicates that the greatest health benefit, when it comes to reducing the risk of strokes and heart attacks, is in getting systolic blood pressure from high (i.e. 160-180) down to moderate (140-150).
From there, the famous SPRINT study, published in 2015, did show a further reduction in cardiovascular risk, when participants were treated to a lower systolic BP, such as a target of 120.
However, this was in a carefully selected group of participants, it required taking three blood pressure medications on average, and the reduction in risk was small. As I note in my article explaining SPRINT Senior, in participants aged 75 or older, pushing to that lower goal was associated with an estimated 1-in-27 chance of avoiding a cardiovascular event. (The benefit was even smaller in adults aged 50-75.)
SPRINT did not include people who have certain common conditions, including diabetes, heart failure, past stroke, or dementia. Hence it’s not clear that the (small) benefits of intensive blood pressure control would apply to those older adults who would not have qualified for the SPRINT trial.
I will come back to the SPRINT study later in the article, since it undoubtedly influenced the recent AHA/ACC guidelines. But first, a little on why the new guidelines are notable.
Why the new blood pressure guidelines are notable
The most notable thing about these guidelines is that the AHA/ACC has decided to redefine hypertension.
Whereas hypertension has historically been defined as a blood pressure higher than 140/90 mm Hg, this expert group is now declaring that a blood pressure (BP) above 130/80 constitutes high blood pressure.
For more key points from the new guidelines, see the ACC News story here: New ACC/AHA High Blood Pressure Guidelines Lower Definition of Hypertension.
The AHA/ACC is also taking a notable position regarding the treatment of high blood pressure in older adults: they are not recommending a higher BP treatment goal for most older patients.
Instead, their guidelines say “Treatment of hypertension with a SBP treatment goal of less than 130 mm Hg is recommended for noninstitutionalized ambulatory community-dwelling adults (≥65 years of age) with an average SBP of 130 mm Hg or higher.”
(You can download a PDF of the full guidelines here: 2017 Guideline for the Prevention, Detection, Evaluation, and Management of High Blood Pressure in Adults.)
This is in stark contrast to the clinical practice guidelines issued in early 2017 by the American College of Physicians (ACP) and American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).
Titled “Pharmacologic Treatment of Hypertension in Adults Aged 60 Years or Older to Higher Versus Lower Blood Pressure Targets,” those guidelines suggest that “physicians initiate treatment in adults aged 60 years old and older with persistent systolic blood pressure at or above 150 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) to achieve a target systolic blood pressure of less than 150 mm Hg to reduce the risk of mortality, stroke, and cardiac events.”
The ACP/AAFP guidelines also recommend that treatment to a lower BP goal be considered for certain older adults, based on their cardiovascular risk and also after discussing the likely benefits and harms with patients.
Why different expert groups are issuing different guidance on blood pressure in older adults
Now, when an expert group issues guidelines, it’s never a quick or casual thing. Guidelines are always the result of a lengthy, careful process of reviewing the scientific evidence before issuing recommendations. And the healthcare professionals who review the science and create guidelines are invariably academics who are highly trained in conducting and assessing scientific evidence.
Still, the experts writing the guidelines do have their favored ways of thinking about healthcare. They also have to exercise some judgment in deciding how the science should be turned into practical recommendations.
In this case, the AHA/ACC group (the cardiologists) and the ACP/AAFP group (the generalists) reviewed the same scientific evidence. But they came to different conclusions about what to recommend to practicing clinicians.
Why did this happen? In practical terms, it looks like the cardiologists heavily relied on SPRINT to guide their recommendations. Whereas the generalists noted that it’s a good trial but only one trial, and they made more nuanced recommendations about when to consider more intensive blood pressure management.
It’s also possible that the generalist expert group was more aware of some practical realities when formulating their guidelines. Namely, they may have been more aware that in real life, working to lower blood pressure down to the minimum can take up time and energy that might be better spent addressing other important health needs a person has.
Think about it: an older person only has so much time with the doctor at each visit. And most people don’t want to — or can’t — go back to the doctor frequently. Furthermore, most older people don’t just have high blood pressure; they also have other chronic conditions, other symptoms, and other questions that need attention.
In that real-world environment, is trying to get blood pressure down to the cardiologist’s idea of “optimal” — assuming the older adult is similar to the SPRINT participants — a good way to expend the time and effort of both the patient and the doctor, as they work to help an older adult achieve better health and wellbeing?
Or might it be better for the clinician and older adult to address fall prevention, or find a way to help the older person build and maintain strength, or perhaps address depression, or any other of the many issues that are often important to better health while aging?
In short, the current divergence in guidelines reflects different groups of experts choosing to frame the scientific evidence in different ways, and also perhaps prioritizing health issues in different ways. Cardiologists are understandably quite focused on minimizing cardiovascular risk. Whereas generalists may have a broader view on an older person’s health, and everything that goes into that.
For a good commentary on this, see “Don’t Let New Blood Pressure Guidelines Raise Yours.”
It is a little unfortunate, in that it’s probably going to cause some confusion for the public, and even within the medical field. But that’s where we are for now.
What you can do: inform yourself
Given the debate and conflicting expert guidelines, what can you do?
Start by learning more about hypertension evaluation and management. Although the cardiology societies and generalist societies have made different recommendations in their guidelines, there are many important points about high blood pressure treatment that are not being contested. These include:
- Correctly measuring blood pressure is very important. The ACC/AHA guidelines recommend careful measurement with good technique, using at least two measurements obtained on at least two occasions in order to determine average BP.
- They also note that “Out-of-office BP measurements are recommended to confirm the diagnosis of hypertension and for titration of BP-lowering medication, in conjunction with telehealth counseling or clinical interventions.”
- Consider a person’s underlying risk of cardiovascular disease when choosing a treatment goal. People at higher risk of stroke or heart attack are more likely to benefit from hypertension treatment.
I also urge you to learn a little more about the SPRINT trial. It’s especially useful to understand who was — and wasn’t — studied in SPRINT, and just how much benefit and harm the participants experienced.
I explain SPRINT in these two articles:
Be proactive about high blood pressure management
Regardless of which guidelines you find most persuasive, what is most important is for you to be proactive in making sure that your high blood pressure management is correctly tailored to you. This means:
- Making sure your blood pressure is correctly and reliably assessed. Ask questions if you are diagnosed or have your medication adjusted based on quick occasional office-based checks. Home blood pressure readings can be a huge help in getting BP reliably assessed.
- Talking to your doctors about what your BP treatment goal should be, and why. Goals are best determined through a conversation between health professionals and patients. Your doctor should be able to discuss with you the pros and cons of aiming for a moderate goal (i.e. less than 150/90) versus a more intensive goal. Obviously, you will be able to ask better questions if you’re informed about the key studies on high blood pressure in older adults; I describe them in my article about SPRINT-Senior.
- Getting help implementing lifestyle modifications that help lower blood pressure. Many non-drug approaches have been proven to help lower blood pressure, and they can often benefit your health in other ways.
I also recommend asking extra questions about blood pressure if you’ve had any concern about falls or near-falls. Although SPRINT did not find that intensive (compared to usual) blood pressure treatment resulted in increased falls, both groups did experience some falls and other research has linked blood pressure treatment to falls.
Per guidelines issued by the Center for Disease Control, an older adult who has been falling or seems to be at high risk should have blood pressure checked sitting and standing. You can learn more about medications that may affect falls through lower blood pressure here: 10 Types of Medications to Review if You’re Concerned About Falling.
You can also find more information on working with your doctor to address high blood pressure here: 6 Steps to Better High Blood Pressure Treatment for Older Adults.
And remember: you can learn everything you need to know about the SPRINT blood pressure trial in these articles:
Do you have any questions or comments about managing high blood pressure in older adults? Post them below, I’d love to know what you think of this latest twist in the high blood pressure guidelines saga.