When I read a headline recently that claimed researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) had “potentially lifesaving information,” to share, to the point they were halting a study a nearly two years earlier than expected, I have to admit I was curious — but skeptical.
And rightly so.
Apparently the government has solved the “great mystery” about what the ideal systolic blood pressure reading should be.
It seems 120 or below is the “magic” number.
Really?! How is that news?
120 is the same number they’ve been recommending for decades!
So what, exactly, is all the fuss about?
Well, apparently, this new study, called SPRINT (Systolic Blood Pressure Intervention Trial), (which, by the way, used Federal funds — i.e. your tax dollars) recruited 9,300 men and women over age 50 who had a high risk of heart disease or had kidney disease. The subjects’ average baseline mean systolic and diastolic blood pressures were 139.7 and 78.1 mm Hg, respectively.
The participants were randomly assigned to reach one of two goals: to either lower their systolic blood pressure to 140 or below; or to 120 or below.
At the end of year 3, it was becoming startling clear that those people who were assigned to reach a BP of 120 were having significantly lower incidences of adverse cardiovascular events. And a lower mortality rate, to boot.
In fact, when systolic blood pressure reached 120 and below, instead of 140 and below:
- There was a 30% reduction in the rates of heart attack, heart failure and stroke, and
- The rate of death from these conditions dropped nearly 25%
So after seeing these impressive numbers, the monitoring committee who reviews the data decided the only ethical thing to do would be to end the trial early, so everyone could have a chance at lowering their number to 120. And, in turn, cut their risk of having an adverse cardiac event.
This was easier said than done, though.
You see, in order to force the systolic number down below 120, the participants needed to take some heavy duty blood pressure drugs.
In fact, those who were assigned to get their pressure below 140 took, on average, two drugs. And those assigned to get their BP below 120 took an average of three drugs.
Drugs, drugs, and more drugs.
How many times do I have to say it? Drugs are not always the answer when it comes to blood pressure. Especially not handfuls of them!
In fact, this “more is better” approach is extremely dangerous.
I’ve seen patients who’ve been on four or five different blood pressure medications for the sole purpose of reaching that “magic” number of 120/70, and guess what? They could hardly move they were so riddled with adverse side effects.
But what bothers me most about this new study is it totally shunned previous research. Like the study I told you about last year that recommended people over 50 aim for a systolic blood pressure between 130-139. And for people 60 and over, the goal was below 150.
And those findings didn’t come from some miniscule clinical trial on a dozen subjects. Researchers reached these conclusions after reviewing the health records of 400,000 people. That’s more than 4 times as many people as the new NIH “SPRINT” study. Not to mention, it was a full year longer than the supposedly “groundbreaking” NIH study.
That previous study also concluded treating high blood pressure too aggressively with drugs may be just as dangerous as not treating it at all.
No doubt the pharmaceutical companies were furious about this revelation, and set on a mission to trump those study results.
And it looks like they did — at least temporarily.
Just the other day I read an article about a new study from Northwestern University with the headline: “Blood pressure medication can’t undo all the damage.”
Amen to that!
Tomorrow, I’ll tell you about what these enlightened researchers say CAN undo that damage. And I’ll also reveal some more glaring flaws in the new “heart-health gospel” according to the NIH.
Can Antihypertensive Treatment Restore the Risk of Cardiovascular Disease to Ideal Levels?: The Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) Study and the Multi‐Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Journal of the American Heart Association, 2015; 4 (9): e002275 DOI: 10.1161/JAHA.115.002275