Hypertension guidelines: Treat patients, not numbers

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The debate over intensive vs standard treatment in blood pressure management extends beyond hypertension and includes important comorbidities such as diabetes, stroke, and renal disease. Patients with a history of stroke or end-stage renal disease have only a minimal mention in the AHA/ACC guidelines.


Emdin et al,32 in a meta-analysis of 40 trials that included more than 100,000 patients with diabetes, concluded that a 10-mm Hg lowering of systolic blood pressure significantly reduces the rates of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, stroke, albuminuria, and retinopathy. Stratifying the results according to the systolic blood pressure achieved (≥ 130 or < 130 mm Hg), the relative risks of mortality, coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, heart failure, and albuminuria were actually lower in the higher stratum than in the lower.

ACCORD (the Action to Control Cardiovascular Risk in Diabetes)33 study provides contrary results. It examined intensive and standard blood pressure control targets in patients with type 2 diabetes at high risk of cardiovascular events, using primary outcome measures similar to those in SPRINT. It found no significant difference in fatal and nonfatal cardiovascular events between the intensive and standard blood pressure target arms.

Despite those results, the ACC/AHA guidelines still advocate for more intensive treatment (goal < 130/80 mm Hg) in all patients, including those with diabetes.1

The ADA position statement (September 2017) recommended a target below 140/90 mm Hg in patients with diabetes and hypertension.8 However, they also noted that lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure targets, such as below 130/80 mm Hg, may be appropriate for patients at high risk of cardiovascular disease “if they can be achieved without undue treatment burden.”8 Thus, it is not clear which blood pressure targets in patients with diabetes are the best.


In patients with stroke, AHA/ACC guidelines1 recommend treatment if the blood pressure is 140/90 mm Hg or higher because antihypertensive therapy has been associated with a decrease in the recurrence of transient ischemic attack and stroke. The ideal target blood pressure is not known, but a goal of less than 130/80 mm Hg may be reasonable.

In the Secondary Prevention of Small Subcortical Strokes (SPS3) trial, a retrospective open-label trial, a target blood pressure below 130/80 mm Hg in patients with a history of lacunar stroke was associated with a lower risk of intracranial hemorrhage, but the difference was not statistically significant.34 For this reason, the ACC/AHA guidelines consider it reasonable to aim for a systolic blood pressure below 130 mm Hg in these patients.1

Renal disease

The ACC/AHA guidelines do not address how to manage hypertension in patients with end-stage renal disease, but for patients with chronic kidney disease they recommend a blood pressure target below 130/80 mm Hg.1 This recommendation is derived from the SPRINT trial,15 in which patients with stage 3 or 4 chronic kidney disease accounted for 28% of the study population. In that subgroup, intensive blood pressure control seemed to provide the same benefits for reduction in cardiovascular death and all-cause mortality.


Blood pressure targets should be applied in the appropriate clinical context and on a patient-by-patient basis. In clinical practice, one size does not always fit all, as special cases exist.

For example, blood pressure can oscillate widely in patients with autonomic nerve disorders, making it difficult to strive for a specific target, especially an intensive one. Thus, it may be necessary to allow higher systolic blood pressure in these patients. Similarly, patients with diabetes or chronic kidney disease may be at higher risk of kidney injury with more intensive blood pressure management.

Treating numbers rather than patients may result in unbalanced patient care. The optimal approach to blood pressure management relies on a comprehensive risk factor assessment and shared decision-making with the patient before setting specific blood pressure targets.


We aim for a blood pressure goal below 130/80 mm Hg for all patients with cardiovascular disease, according to the AHA/ACC guidelines. We aim for that same target in patients without cardiovascular disease but who have an elevated estimated cardiovascular risk (> 10%) over the next 10 years.

We recognize, however, that the benefits of aggressive blood pressure reduction may not be as clear in all patients, such as those with diabetes. We also recognize that some patient subgroups are at high risk of adverse events, including those with low diastolic pressure, chronic kidney disease, a history of falls, and older age. In those patients, we are extremely judicious when titrating antihypertensive medications. We often make smaller titrations, at longer intervals, and with more frequent laboratory testing and in-office follow-up.

Our process of managing hypertension through intensive blood pressure control to achieve lower systolic blood pressure targets requires a concerted effort among healthcare providers at all levels. It especially requires more involvement and investment from primary care providers to individualize treatment in their patients. This process has helped us to reach our treatment goals while limiting adverse effects of lower blood pressure targets.


Hypertension is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease, and intensive blood pressure control has the potential to significantly reduce rates of morbidity and death associated with cardiovascular disease. Thus, a general consensus on the definition of hypertension and treatment goals is essential to reduce the risk of cardiovascular events in this large patient population.

Intensive blood pressure treatment has shown efficacy, but it has a small accompanying risk of adverse events, which varies in patient subgroups and affects the benefit-risk ratio of this therapy. For example, the cardiovascular benefit of intensive treatment is less clear in diabetic patients, and the risk of adverse events may be higher in older patients with chronic kidney disease.

Moving forward, more research is needed into the effects of intensive and standard treatment on patients of all ages, those with common comorbid conditions, and those with other important factors such as diastolic hypertension.

Finally, the various medical societies should collaborate on hypertension guideline development. This would require considerable planning and coordination but would ultimately be useful in creating a generalizable approach to hypertension management.

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