It’s the “magic” number just about everyone knows: 120/80.
If your blood pressure isn’t at, or below that, you’ll land smack in the prehypertension group.
And if, heaven forbid, you venture up to 140 on the top reading, you’ll definitely be told it’s time to start a “treatment program.” Code words for taking dangerous high blood-pressure drugs.
But more and more research coming out is telling us that’s just plain wrong, wrong, wrong.
Fast track to dementia
The most recent study on aggressive blood pressure control out of Italy found that patients in a memory clinic who had the lowest systolic (top) number (achieved by taking blood pressure drugs) also had the most “cognitive decline.”
And before that, a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society discovered that higher blood pressure in those 85 and older was connected to “resilience” in both physical and mental decline.
Another study, from the Netherlands, found older people who were on blood pressure meds were more likely to suffer from dementia. The researchers said that the reason may be because as you age, too low blood pressure can cause your brain to get an insufficient supply of blood.
Add to that the fact that a review of four recent drug trials involving over 9,000 people with a systolic reading going up to 159 found that treating them with drugs does very little to prevent heart disease.
But it looks like some bad advice is amazingly sticky. And what we’ve been told all along about blood pressure seems to be made out of superglue.
Even new guidelines published last year in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association hasn’t caused the shakeup it was expected to.
It was the first time that the top number in what is considered “high blood pressure” actually went up, with the biggest difference being for those over 60.
A committee – one made up of many of the most well-respected heart doctors you can find — said that there is no reason for people who are 60 or over to start on drugs unless their blood pressure is 150/90 or higher. (It had been 140/90).
And for people under 60, the numbers also got bumped up to 140/90.
Now this isn’t to say that having a lower blood pressure reading isn’t healthier. But it’s how you get that lower reading that counts.
Dr. Paul James, co-chairman of the panel that issued the new numbers, said someone whose top number is120 will “have lower health risks” than, say, someone with a reading of 140.
But getting to that number with drugs didn’t show the same health benefits as being able to achieve it naturally.
A big part of that reason could be because drugs to lower blood pressure are some of the riskiest ones out there.
For example, drugs in the “ARB” family can cause lupus, hypersensitivity and acute eye problems, including glaucoma. And if taken during pregnancy they can actually kill an unborn baby.
In addition, people on ACE inhibitors can develop sudden, life-threatening swelling of the face and neck.
And all these meds can cause blood pressure to fall too low, leading to dizziness and falls.
So if your doctor is still clinging to the old party line about your blood pressure number, it’s time to break the news to him that 120/80 has gone the way of eight-track tapes and rotary phones.
“5 things every family physician should know in 2015” Frank J. Domino, MD, March 3, 2015, Medscape, medscape.com
“Aggressive blood pressure control leads to mental decline” March 5, 2015, The People’s Pharmacy, peoplespharmacy.com