For many years, the approach to the diagnosis of hypertension was straight-forward—multiple blood pressure (BP) measurements ≥140/90 mm Hg established the diagnosis of hypertension, a disease associated with an increased risk of adverse cardiovascular events, including myocardial infarction and stroke. For more than a decade, hypertension experts have argued that a BP ≥130/80 mm Hg should establish the diagnosis of hypertension. Many clinicians resisted the change because it would markedly increase the number of asymptomatic adults with the diagnosis, increasing the number needing treatment. However, the findings of the Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial (SPRINT) and other observational studies have catalyzed the American College of Cardiology (ACC) and the American Heart Association (AHA) to redefine normal BP as <120/80 mm Hg.1 This change will expand the diagnosis of hypertension to include up to 50% of American adults.1 In addition, the new definition of normal BP will result in the greater use of lifestyle interventions and antihypertensive medications to achieve the new normal, a BP of <120/80 mm Hg.
The new definition of hypertension
The new definition of hypertension is of particular importance for people at risk for developing cardiovascular disease (CVD) 1,2 and is summarized here.
- Normal BP: systolic BP (SBP) <120 mm Hg and diastolic BP (DBP) <80 mm Hg
- Elevated BP: SBP 120–129 mm Hg and DBP <80 mm Hg
- Stage 1 hypertension: SBP 130–139 mm Hg or DBP 80–89 mm Hg.
- Stage 2 hypertension: SBP ≥140 mm Hg or DBP ≥90 mm Hg.
The new definition of hypertension will markedly increase the number of mid-life adults eligible to be treated for hypertension. I summarize the approach to treating hypertension in this article.
For mid-life adults, a SBP of <120 mm Hg is better for the heart
The heart is a pump, and not surprisingly, if a pump can achieve its job at a lower rather than a higher pressure, it is likely to last longer. The SPRINT study clearly demonstrated that in elderly hypertensive adults, an SBP target of <120 mm Hg is associated with fewer deaths than a SBP in the range of 130 to 140 mm Hg.3
In the SPRINT trial, 9,361 people with a mean age, body mass index, and BP of 68 years, 30 kg/m2 and 140/78 mm Hg, respectively, were randomly assigned to intensive treatment of SBP to a goal of <120 mm Hg or to a target of <140 mm Hg. After 1 year of treatment, the intensive treatment group had a mean SBP of 121 mm Hg and the standard treatment group had a mean SBP of 136 mm Hg. To achieve a SBP <120 mm Hg, most patients required 3 antihypertensive medications, in contrast to the 2 antihypertensive medications typically needed to achieve a SBP in the range of 130 to 140 mm Hg.
After a median of 3.3 years of follow-up, significantly fewer deaths occurred in the intensive treatment group than in the standard treatment group, including deaths from all causes (3.3% vs 4.5%, P = .003) and deaths from CVD (0.8% vs 1.4%; P = .005). In addition, the risk of developing heart failure was lower in the intensive treatment than in the standard treatment group (1.3% vs 2.1%, P = .002). There was no difference between the 2 groups in the risk of stroke (1.3% vs 1.5%, P = .50) or myocardial infarction (2.1% vs 2.5%, P = .19). The rate of syncope was higher in the intensive treatment group (2.3% vs 1.7% in the standard treatment group, P = .05).3 Self-reported mental and physical health and satisfaction with treatment was similar in both groups.4
The investigators concluded that among people at risk for CVD, targeting a SBP of <120 mm Hg as compared to <140 mm Hg resulted in lower rates of heart failure and death, two clinically meaningful endpoints.