ASU professor explains new blood pressure guidelines

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A lot of people learned this week that they have high blood pressure after new guidelines were released lowering the definition of hypertension.

The changes come from the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association as part of their scientific guidelines for prevention, detection, evaluation and management of high blood pressure in adults.

As a result of the new guidelines, nearly half of the U.S. adult population (46 percent) now qualify as having high blood pressure, according to the ACC, but the biggest increase is expected among people under the age of 45.

Arizona State Univeristy College of Nursing and Health Innovation Clinical Professor Heather Ross specializes in cardiovascular care; here she provides details on what the change means and things you can do to decrease your risk. As always, before making any diet or lifestyle changes it is important to consult your health-care provider.

Question: Can you explain in simple terms what the new blood pressure guidelines mean for people and how it might affect them?

Answer: The new blood pressure guidelines mean that more adults technically have high blood pressure. For most people, this means making lifestyle changes like eating a healthier or lower-salt diet, exercising more or losing weight. For some people, it may mean taking medication to keep their blood pressure in a healthy range. However, most people will be able to treat their high blood pressure with lifestyle changes.

Q: Why were the guidelines changed?

A: The guidelines were changed because large population studies found that blood pressures above 120/80 put people at a statistically higher risk of having cardiovascular disease including chest pain, heart attack, heart failure, stroke, peripheral arterial disease or abdominal aortic aneurysm. All of these conditions can cause long-term health problems or even be life-threatening. Therefore, the best approach is to prevent them from ever happening by keeping blood pressure in a safer, lower range. 

Many people are confused when a change like this happens, especially when it means that a health number like blood pressure changes. For years, we have told people that 120/80 is a perfect blood pressure, and all of a sudden 120/80 is too high. The reason for the change is that researchers are constantly learning new things about our health based on ongoing studies of large groups of people, using new technologies that give us a better understanding of how health measurements change over time. Therefore, we try to incorporate these new scientific findings into health-care recommendations for people.

, PhD, DNP
Heather Ross

Q: Will this mean more and especially younger people will require medication for hypertension?

A: For most people, lifestyle changes alone will be enough to keep blood pressure in a healthy range. Compared to the old guidelines, just a few more people are likely to need to take medications for high blood pressure. However, people who are prescribed medications for high blood pressure should continue to take them, even when their blood pressures are back to being in a healthy range. Blood pressure medication isn't like an antibiotic that you'd take for an infection and stop taking after the infection goes away. For most people, high blood pressure is a lifelong condition and blood pressure medication is necessary long-term to keep the blood pressure in a healthy range and prevent any more serious heart or artery problems from developing.

Q: What are some of the things people can do to decrease their risk under the new lower definition of high blood pressure?

A: For many people, eating a healthier diet that is lower in salt will go a long way to lowering their blood pressure. Some people may also need to lose weight with a combination of diet and exercise. For people with high blood pressure, it is never a good idea to go on a crash diet or take diet pills to lose weight; that could actually be dangerous. Of course, moderate cardiovascular exercise for 30 minutes five days per week is a great idea for just about everyone, whether you have high blood pressure or not.

Q: Is this a wake-up call for American’s to pay more attention to heart health in general?

A: Yes, absolutely. Heart disease is still the No. 1 killer of men and women in America. Taking steps to keep your blood pressure at a safe, lower level can help to prevent developing more dangerous heart conditions in the long run.