Under Pressure

Game-changing study on heart health could save millions of lives

by JP Faber | Updated 14 Sep 2015 at 5:09 AM

Lowering previously “acceptable” blood pressure levels in adults over 50 will dramatically reduce the chance of premature death, according a new study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

The study, the largest of its kind to date, was a clinical trial of 9,300 adults over a six-year period called SPRINT — an acronym for Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial — to compare the health of adults with a systolic blood pressure of 140 to those with a systolic blood pressure of 120.

37790_1Systolic is the top of the two numbers given for blood pressure, and measures the pressure in arteries when the heart beats. Diastolic is the lower number, and measures the pressure between heartbeats. A "normal," or healthy, blood pressure is 120/80. The "acceptable" levels were 140/90.

37790_2The initial findings, released Friday, found that adults with a systolic blood pressure of 120 had a one-third less chance of a heart attack or stroke, and a one-quarter less chance of death. The results were so dramatic the study was stopped so volunteers with a systolic blood pressure of 140 could receive treatments to lower their levels.

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“This study provides potentially lifesaving information,” said Dr. Gary H. Gibbons, director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, a division of NIH.

The study, he said, would be particularly useful for older Americans, “particularly those over the age of 50.”

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease, stroke, kidney failure and other health problems.

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is a leading cause of cardiovascular disease, stroke, kidney failure and other health problems. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 1 in 3 American adults, or about 70 million people, have high blood pressure.

“High blood pressure is the number one attributable cause of death in the world,” said Dr. William B. White, the immediate past president of the American Society of Hypertension.

37790_3In an interview with LifeZette, White called the SPRINT report “the most dramatic study in the field of cardiovascular medicine in the last 50 years.”

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White called the study a "game-changer" because cardiologists previously thought a systolic blood pressure of 140 was acceptable in older adults. Even Harvard Medical School’s guidelines recommend a target of 140 or less for adults 30 to 59, and 150 or less for adults under 60.

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What the SPRINT study showed was that aggressive treatment of blood pressure, bringing down the top systolic number from 140 to 120, had a major impact on health.

“A systolic reading of 135 would have been considered acceptable,” White told LifeZette. “Now, we have striking evidence that a level of 120 reduces the chances of death by 30 percent. This is a major game changer of how this disease should be treated, especially if you are over 50 and have at least one other risk.”
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White, a professor and chief of hypertension and clinical pharmacology at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, said every adult over age 50 should have his or her blood pressure checked at least once a year. This is especially important because high blood pressure has almost no symptoms until it results in a cardiovascular "event," such as a heart attack or stroke.

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Doctors attribute most high blood pressure to modern-day stress and poor diet, and recommend taking preventative action. The top three things anyone can to do lower high blood pressure, White said, are:

  • Improve your diet, especially reducing the amount of salt you consume.
  • Lose weight — a 10 percent weight loss will noticeably drop blood pressure.
  • Engage in regular exercise.

‘You want the kind of exercise that raises the heart rate — aerobic exercise — for 30 minutes a day, four days a week,” White said. “That will lower your blood pressure. Of course, if you stop, the blood pressure goes back up.”

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