New guidelines issued by U.S. medical societies have expanded the definition of hypertension for the first time in 14 years, classifying 30 million more Americans as having high blood pressure.The change means almost half of the nation’s adults, or 103 million people, are technically classified as having hypertension, up from one-third. But don’t worry too much—if you are one of the newly initiated, the experts aren’t suggesting anything radical. Just take some commonsense steps to avoid future cardiovascular complications.
The update by the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association is based on a three-year review of almost 1,000 studies. A healthier diet and more exercise, unsurprisingly, are the primary recommendations for those who fall into the new category of stage 1 hypertension, previously called “pre-hypertension” or “high-normal blood pressure,” said Paul Whelton, chair of global public health at the Tulane University School of Public Health and lead author of the guidelines.
“We didn’t like either of those terms because we felt—at that stage—somebody is already at substantial increased risk,” he said at a briefing Monday at the AHA’s annual meeting in Anaheim, California. And for those who had normal blood pressure before the new gauge, Whelton had some good news: “Normal hasn’t changed.”
For Americans under the age of 45, the change will triple the number of men and double the number of women diagnosed with hypertension
Of those newly categorized as having high blood pressure, some 4.2 million also have other risk factors for heart disease. These individuals should start taking medicine to lower their numbers, the researchers said. While many patients need multiple drugs to get their blood pressure into a healthy range, most treatments are available as less-expensive generic pills.
Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S., killing 800,000 Americans and accounting for 670,000 heart attacks annually. Hypertension, where the force of blood pushing against blood vessel walls is elevated, is considered the second-largest cause of preventable heart disease after smoking. Damage to the inside of arteries and other blood vessels can grow over time, and rates of hypertension increase with age.
Hypertension is also a major obstacle in underwriting for life insurance, disability insurance and other insurance products.
A blood pressure reading is generally given as a ratio, with normal being 120 millimeters over 80 millimeters of mercury, or mmHg. The top number is known as the systolic rate, measuring the pressure on your blood vessels when the heart beats. The lower number is the diastolic reading, or the pressure level between the contractions when the heart is filling with blood.