Blood pressure targets – how low can you get?

In this blog for people with cardiovascular disease taking treatment for high blood pressure, Robert Walton, a Cochrane UK Senior Fellow in General Practice, looks at the latest Cochrane evidence on what blood pressure targets to aim for, balancing the benefits of treatment against risk of side effects.

So you want to stay healthy and live to a ripe old age? But the doctor says your blood pressure is too high and you have started taking medication to bring it down.  What should your blood pressure be and when do you stop trying to make it lower?

These are really important questions but until recently there was very little evidence on which to base your decision.  Now there is a new Cochrane review (Saiz et al, 2017) that could help you to decide what your blood pressure target should be, so you know what goal you need to achieve to reduce the chances of problems in the future.

First let’s have a look at existing recommendations for blood pressure targets and then see where the new review takes us.

A US perspective on blood pressure

Digital Blood Pressure Monitor end Tablets in blister packs

Many people already taking two or more drugs to control their blood pressure would need higher doses or extra drugs to meet new blood pressure targets

An influential report recently by the American College of Cardiology and American Heart Association (Whelton et al, 2017) reflects the views of some doctors both in the US and in Europe that blood pressure targets are currently set too high. Thus experts think that many people would benefit from lower blood pressures than they are currently achieving.

Aiming for lower blood pressure seems to make sense because we know from large studies in different populations that the risk of heart disease and stroke rises steadily as blood pressure increases and, although there has been some debate on the subject, people with the lowest blood pressures generally are at lowest risk (Rapsomaniki et al, 2014).

So does all that apply to people who have already had problems with cardiovascular disease who are taking blood pressure treatment?  Well the new US guidelines presume that it does and suggest that blood pressure should be kept below 130/80.  The publication of this guideline caused a stir since doctors and patients alike begin to wonder how the targets can be achieved.

Many people already take two or more drugs to control their blood pressure and would need higher doses or extra medication to move their blood pressure below the new target. With the increased medication load comes increased risk of side effects and people may want to balance the benefits in reduction of cardiovascular disease against the unwanted effects of drugs.

Are the new guidelines taken up in Europe?

To quote that famous, and oft repeated utterance by General De Gaulle when Britain was trying to join the Common Market “Non!”European guidelines published in 2016 give a general target of 140/90 for blood pressure (Piepoli et al, 2016), which is substantially higher and completely out of step the US recommendations.

What about the guidance in the UK?

De Gaulle was certain that Britain did not belong in Europe and subsequent events may have proved him right.  Whilst he could reasonably say ‘I told you so’, he might be surprised that Brexit Britain is completely in harmony with its European neighbours at least in the matter of blood pressure targets.  The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) visited the subject in 2016 and gave a general target for people taking blood pressure lowering medication of 140/90 (NICE 2016).

So where does that leave us?

This newly updated Cochrane review looks specifically at whether risk of death is lower in people with cardiovascular disease who achieve lower blood pressure targets.  In this review the target blood pressure was 130/80.  The review went on to assess the risk of unwanted effects from blood pressure treatment by looking at the number of people who dropped out of trials because of drug side effects.

Interestingly there was no difference in risk of death in people in the lower blood pressure target group compared to those in the standard target group.  We can’t be certain about the risks of unwanted effects as the evidence was limited, but the chances of side effects from medication may be about eight times higher in people trying to achieve lower target blood pressure targets.

Several trials are in progress that will give us more information on this important issue (European Society of Hypertension-Chinese Hypertension League Stroke in Hypertension Optimal Treatment (ESH-CHL-SHOT); INtensive versus standard ambulatory blood pressure lowering to prevent functional DeclINe in the ElderlY (INFINITY); Recurrent stroke prevention clinical outcome study (RESPECTS) NCT01198496; Strategy of blood pressure intervention in the elderly hypertensive patients (STEP) NCT03015311). However, based on the best evidence to date, the choice of blood pressure targets seems straightforward – perhaps we are best advised to stay closely aligned with our European neighbours!

Now let me move on to the subject of the next referendum………

Join in the conversation on Twitter with @CochraneUK or leave a comment on the blog.

References may be found here.

Robert Walton has nothing to disclose.

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Robert Walton

About Robert Walton

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Robert Walton is a Cochrane UK Senior Fellow in General Practice. Robert qualified in medicine in London in 1983, having taken an intercalated degree in human pharmacology and immunology. He trained at St Georges Hospital, London and became a member of the Royal College of Physicians in 1986. His work applying computerised decision support to prescribing drugs in the Department of Public Health and Primary care in Oxford led to a doctoral thesis in 1998. Robert was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of General Practitioners in 1999 and the RoyalCollege of Physicians in 2001. He became a Senior Investigator in the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) in 2016. Robert is Clinical Professor of Primary Medical Care at Queen Mary and joint lead of the NIHR Research Design Service east London team, his research interests are in primary care, genetics, clinical trials and personalised medicine. Robert leads a five-year NIHR funded programme developing a novel training intervention to promote smoking cessation in pharmacies in east London which involves a substantive systematic review and meta analysis on behaviour change interventions in community pharmacies and will lead to a large scale cluster-randomised clinical trial. His research team is also developing a smartphone game to promote smoking cessation and researching a personalised/stratified medicine approach to tobacco dependence using computerised decision support. He sits on the NIHR Programme Grants for Applied Research sub panel A and works as an evaluator for the European Union Horizon 2020 programme (Global Alliance for Chronic Diseases, New Therapies for Rare Diseases). He contributes to UK national guidance, serving on the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) Outcome Indicator and Technology Appraisals Committees. He has worked as a general practitioner in Oxford since 1988.

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