The guidelines for treating high blood pressure (hypertension) were recently revised. In brief, the authors raised the acceptable limit for systolic blood pressure for individuals 60 years and older. Additionally, they questioned the previous recommendation of aiming for lower blood pressures for patients with diabetes and kidney disease. As was the case with cholesterol, the conclusions were challenged by many experts, particularly challenging the choice of studies that produced the conclusions.
The previous blood pressure treatment goal of less than 140/90 mm Hg for individuals 60 years or older has been raised by the new guidelines to 150/90 mm Hg. The former goal was based on studies showing an increased cardiovascular risk in individuals with blood pressure over 140/90 mm Hg and risk improvement when the blood pressure was lowered. For instance, lowering blood pressure by 10 mm Hg in patients with hypertension reduces the risk of cardiovascular and stroke death by 25% to 40%.
However, the studies documenting results such as the above often had a goal of less than 160 mmHg and often did not examine the subset of patients 60 years and older. Two recent relatively short-duration studies comparing a goal of less than 140 mm Hg with less than 150 mm Hg in patients over 65 years showed no outcome difference. Using a review of many studies, the guideline authors did not find sufficient evidence that the more aggressive treatment goal of 140/90 mm Hg vs. 150/90 mm Hg benefits older adults.
The obvious question is: What is the harm of a more aggressive goal since so many studies, however imperfect, document improvement with lower blood pressure? Medication side effects are the worry. Too many times physicians become cemented on a number and push medications to the point where an individual experiences dizziness (the most common antihypertensive medication side effect.) The risk from falls can exceed the more remote risk from hypertension. Therefore, on balance the guideline authors suggest flexibility when treating patients 60 years and older.
That said, if an older hypertensive individual tolerates a goal of 140/90 without side effects there is no reason to decrease or stop medication allowing an increase in blood pressure to 150/90. Furthermore, many think that there is reason to believe that the lower goal, absent the concern of medication side effects, probably is more beneficial.
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