Understanding the American Heart Association’s New Blood Pressure Guidelines

The American Heart Association (AHA) recently made major news by rolling out new standards for what it considers healthy blood pressure readings in an effort to encourage medical intervention before a patient’s blood pressure becomes dangerously high.

As a result of this change, many Americans (as many as 50 percent nationwide) will soon learn that they are now considered at risk for hypertension (high blood pressure) and receive preventative treatment by their primary care physicians. Measuring blood pressure

In an effort to better educate SelectCare’s community, this blog will explain the new blood pressure guidelines, how they came to be and what patients can expect during their next checkup.

What is Blood Pressure and how is it traditionally measured?

When a physician checks your blood pressure, they determine the systolic and diastolic pressures of your cardiovascular system (think of these as the maximum and minimum blood pressures your body experiences).

High blood pressure (hypertension) is a serious condition that strains a patient’s cardiovascular system, putting them at higher risk for heart attack, stroke and kidney disease among other complications and, unless checked with a blood pressure cuff, can easily go unnoticed until serious intervention is required.

Patients have traditionally been considered to have high blood pressure if they have a systolic pressure of 140 or more, and a diastolic pressure of 90 or more and are typically treated with a combination of lifestyle changes (usually diet and exercise) and possible intervention with medication meant to lower blood pressure, depending on the patient’s individual risk factors for heart disease.

New Blood Pressure Guidelines Explained

Under the AHA’s new guidelines, cutoffs for “at risk” blood pressures have been lowered to encourage less drastic medical interventions earlier, ideally reining in a patient’s blood pressure with lifestyle and dietary changes rather than medication.  The new guidelines are as follows:

Blood Pressure (Systolic/Diastolic)          New Classification

120-129 / less than 80                                             Elevated Blood Pressure

130-139 / 80-89                                                        Stage 1 Hypertension

140 or more / 90 or more                                       Stage 2 Hypertension

180 or more / 120 or more                                     Hypertensive Emergency

Expected Treatments for Various Stages of Hypertension

As with any medical intervention, treatment will differ by patient and physician, however the AHA suggests some basic guidelines for doctors based on these new standards.

Patients with Elevated Blood Pressure levels will receive advice on lifestyle changes that can help them manage their blood pressure, including increased levels of exercise and a move to a more heart-healthy diet (typically involving the reduction of salt).

Patients with Stage 1 Hypertension will receive treatment based on their medical history and risk factors. If a patient has had a prior cardiac event (i.e. heart attack or stroke), diabetes, high cholesterol or a positive family history of heart disease, doctors will typically prescribe blood pressure medication in conjunction with lifestyle changes. If a patient with Stage 1 Hypertension does not present these risk factors, doctors will typically recommend lifestyle changes for a trial period and only prescribe medication if these changes fail to lower the patient’s blood pressure to safer levels.

Patients diagnosed with Stage 2 Hypertension, doctors will immediately prescribe medication and suggest lifestyle changes with no medication-free trial period.

Finally, if a patient’s blood pressure puts them in the Hypertensive Emergency classification, doctors are recommended to immediately admit them to a hospital or emergency room for immediate intervention.

Why the change?

Although these changes might lead to a few surprises for patients previously on the cusp of having medically-significant high blood pressure, the overall goal for these changes is to encourage early intervention by doctors and patients, thus avoiding more serious health conditions in the future. As a result, patients will now have the information and assistance necessary to be more proactive about their cardiovascular health.

While these new standards might be a big change for some patients, the AHA believes these changes could save countless lives. In a 2015 study published by the New England Journal of Medicine, these new standards and earlier interventions led to a 25 percent decrease in serious cardiac events among patients when compared to those treated under the older guidelines.

SelectCare hopes our community finds this article useful in understanding the how and why of the AHA’s new blood pressure regulations.  Our team of dedicated home health care experts monitor trends in the medical community closely and are happy to serve as an informational resource to our clients.

If these new guidelines impact you or a loved one, or if you feel you need assistance managing your medication, medical appointments or just need a little extra help around the home, call SelectCare today or request a free in-home care guide to learn how we can help.