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AARP Bulletin

New Blood Pressure Guidelines Draw Fire

Dissenting medical experts from panel warn that new rules could endanger some people

A doctor listening to his patient's heartbeat with a stethoscope

New blood pressure guidelines might free some from taking powerful meds with strong side effects. — Istock

According to Jackson T. Wright Jr., M.D., author of the minority view and director of the clinical hypertension program at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, it could leave older adults with untreated high blood pressure at greater risk for complications — especially for African Americans and those with additional cardiovascular risk factors.

Wright, who was also a member of the 2003 panel, supports sticking with those recommendations to treat blood pressure that is above 140/90.

"With that target, the complication rate has been decreasing over the past several decades, especially in those over age 60," he says. By following the new guidelines, "we may face a reverse in these gains."

Still, both doctors and patients worry about the side effects of blood pressure meds, particularly dizziness that can lead to falls, and how the pills interact with the other medications a patient may be taking. By adding some leeway in treating high blood pressure, patients may be able to take fewer pills, says Townsend.

The one thing the controversy points up is that "each patient needs to be individualized," says the heart association's Jessup.

"A blood pressure of 150/90 in one patient who's basically in good health, but might need to make some dietary or lifestyle changes, is not the same as another one with 150/90 who is a walking time bomb because they have other risk factors," she points out.

Mary Ann McLaughlin, M.D., medical director of the cardiac health program at Mount Sinai Medical Center, says that, since news of the guidelines, "many patients have called and emailed me asking if they can get off their pills."

Her general advice:

  • If you're older than 60 and on more than two blood pressure medications, and your blood pressure is consistently in the 120s or 130s, talk to your doctor about revisiting your regimen.

  • If you're older than 75 and feeling dizzy or light-headed with a systolic blood pressure (top number) less than 150, talk to your doctor about reducing your medication dosage.

  • If you're active and vigorous at any age on your current medication regimen, and your systolic blood pressure is less than 140, there should be no reason to change your medications.

Candy Sagon writes about health and nutrition for the AARP Bulletin.

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