Hypertension guidelines: Treat patients, not numbers

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ACP/AAFP 2017: Systolic 150 or 130

In 2017, the American College of Physicians (ACP) and the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommended a relaxed systolic blood pressure target, ie, below 150 mm Hg, for adults over age 60, but a tighter goal of less than 140 mm Hg for the same age group if they have transient ischemic attack, stroke, or high cardiovascular risk.9

ACC/AHA 2017: 130/80

The 2017 ACC/AHA guidelines recommended a more aggressive goal of below 130/80 for all, including patients age 65 and older.1

This is a class I (strong) recommendation for patients with known cardiovascular disease or a 10-year risk of a cardiovascular event of 10% or higher, with a B-R level of evidence for the systolic goal (ie, moderate-quality, based on systematic review of randomized controlled trials) and a C-EO level of evidence for the diastolic goal (ie, based on expert opinion).

For patients who do not have cardiovascular disease and who are at lower risk of it, this is a class IIb (weak) recommendation, ie, it “may be reasonable,” with a B-NR level of evidence (moderate-quality, based on nonrandomized studies) for the systolic goal and C-EO (expert opinion) for the diastolic goal.

For many patients, this involves drug treatment. For those with known cardiovascular disease or a 10-year risk of an atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease event of 10% or higher, the ACC/AHA guidelines say that drug treatment “is recommended” if their average blood pressure is 130/80 mm Hg or higher (class I recommendation, based on strong evidence for the systolic threshold and expert option for the diastolic). For those without cardiovascular disease and at lower risk, drug treatment is recommended if their average blood pressure is 140/90 mm Hg or higher (also class I, but based on limited data).


Although the guidelines differ in their blood pressure targets, they consistently recommend lifestyle modifications.

Lifestyle modifications, first described in JNC 7, included weight loss, sodium restriction, and the DASH diet, which is rich in fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, poultry, and fish, and low in red meat, sweets, cholesterol, and total and saturated fat.2

These recommendations were based on results from 3 large randomized controlled trials in patients with and without hypertension.10–12 In patients with no history of hypertension, interventions to promote weight loss and sodium restriction significantly reduced blood pressure and the incidence of hypertension (the latter by as much as 77%) compared with usual care.10,11

In patients with and without hypertension, lowering sodium intake in conjunction with the DASH diet was associated with substantially larger reductions in systolic blood pressure.12

The recommendation to lower sodium intake has not changed in the guideline revisions. Meanwhile, other modifications have been added, such as incorporating both aerobic and resistance exercise and moderating alcohol intake. These recommendations have a class I level of evidence (ie, strongest level) in the 2017 ACC/AHA guidelines.1


The definition of hypertension changed in the 2017 ACC/AHA guidelines1: previously set at 140/90 mm Hg or higher, it is now 130/80 mm Hg or higher for all age groups. Adults with systolic blood pressure of 130 to 139 mm Hg or diastolic blood pressure of 80 to 89 mm Hg are now classified as having stage 1 hypertension.

Under the new definition, the number of US adults who have hypertension expanded to 45.6% of the general population,13 up from 31.9% under the JNC 7 definition. Thus, overall, 103.3 million US adults now have hypertension, compared with 72.2 million under the JNC 7 criteria.

In addition, the new guidelines expanded the population of adults for whom antihypertensive drug treatment is recommended to 36.2% (81.9 million). However, this represents only a 1.9% absolute increase over the JNC 7 recommendations (34.3%) and a 5.1% absolute increase over the JNC 8 recommendations.14


The new ACC/AHA guidelines1 were based on evidence from several trials, including the Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial (SPRINT).15

This multicenter trial investigated the effect of intensive blood pressure treatment on cardiovascular disease risk.16 The primary outcome was a composite of myocardial infarction, acute coronary syndrome, stroke, and heart failure.

The trial enrolled 9,361 participants at least 50 years of age with systolic blood pressure 130 mm Hg or higher and at least 1 additional risk factor for cardiovascular disease. It excluded anyone with a history of diabetes mellitus, stroke, symptomatic heart failure, or end-stage renal disease.

Two interventions were compared:

  • Intensive treatment, with a systolic blood pressure goal of less than 120 mm Hg: the protocol called for polytherapy, even for participants who were 75 or older if their blood pressure was 140 mm Hg or higher
  • Standard treatment, with a systolic blood pressure goal of less than 140 mm Hg: it used polytherapy for patients whose systolic blood pressure was 160 mm Hg or higher.

The trial was intended to last 5 years but was stopped early at a median of 3.26 years owing to a significantly lower rate of the primary composite outcome in the intensive-treatment group: 1.65% per year vs 2.19%, a 25% relative risk reduction (P < .001) or a 0.54% absolute risk reduction. We calculate the number needed to treat (NNT) for 1 year to prevent 1 event as 185, and over the 3.26 years of the trial, the investigators calculated the NNT as 61. Similarly, the rate of death from any cause was also lower with intensive treatment, 1.03% per year vs 1.40% per year, a 27% relative risk reduction (P = .003) or a 0.37% absolute risk reduction, NNT 270.

Using these findings, Bress et al16 estimated that implementing intensive blood pressure goals could prevent 107,500 deaths annually.

The downside is adverse effects. In SPRINT,15 the intensive-treatment group experienced significantly higher rates of serious adverse effects than the standard-treatment group, ie:

  • Hypotension 2.4% vs 1.4%, P = .001
  • Syncope 2.3% vs 1.7%, P = .05
  • Electrolyte abnormalities 3.1% vs 2.3%, P = .02)
  • Acute kidney injury or kidney failure 4.1% vs 2.5%, P < .001
  • Any treatment-related adverse event 4.7% vs 2.5%, P = .001.

Thus, Bress et al16 estimated that fully implementing the intensive-treatment goals could cause an additional 56,100 episodes of hypotension per year, 34,400 cases of syncope, 43,400 serious electrolyte disorders, and 88,700 cases of acute kidney injury. All told, about 3 million Americans could suffer a serious adverse effect under the intensive-treatment goals.

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